Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama does not "get it" with Education

I was listening to President Obama talk about his education plans on CNN today. I was distressed because, as high as my hopes were for him, he seems to regurgitate the bullet points I heard from the previous administration. He bemoaned our scores in the international standings. Then he pronounced how we are going to turn this around - get quality teachers in the classrooms.

President Obama seems to believe that we can raise scores by attacking our perceived problems at the teacher level. This will fail, because our scores are NOT being driven by teachers.

I have been teaching for 18 years. Here is the truth as I see it: You can put a motivated student in with mediocre teachers for years and at the other end, the student will have made good gains. Conversely, you can put an unmotivated student in with the most talented of teachers and a few years later the student will have made minimal gains. If we put (to use No Child Left Behind logic) above average teachers in every classroom in America, I believe we would see negligible change.

I am a perfect example. Up until my tenth grade year, I was a poor student. I never made a grade above C. I just didn't feel like doing the work. When I turned it around and committed to work, I became a solid A/B student. My scores did not improve because a teacher taught harder, or better, or longer. My scores changed when I decided they would.

I really wish that my students' outcomes were solely dependent on me, but they are not. If we, as a nation, desire different results then we will need to address the situation a little more honestly. Attacking the problem at the teacher level will yield no real difference, and will give us a very frustrated teaching workforce.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Brad Olsen CD Release Party

"I Can Explain"

Brad Olsen (previously of The Waiting) will be having a CD Release Party at:

The Listening Room
193 West 2100 South
May 15th at 7:00
Tickets are $5 (Free Coffee and Childcare)

The CD will be available for order and on ITunes soon. In the meantime, here is a free track:

My Girl Renee

My friend Brad and his family are wonderful souls. I cannot recommend his music highly enough. If you are in or near the SLC valley, come on over to K2 on the 15th for a night of great entertainment.

**UPDATE** CD and Concert information can be found at :
ALSO - Brad and The Waiting will be opening for Audio Adrenaline on May 8, 2010 at Risen Fest in Fayetteville, GA.  This is a free show.  More info.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Miracle Maker

This is one of the better "Jesus" movies out there. It is done primarily in claymation, and it has Ralph Fiennes as Jesus. It was produced by a Russian animation company that was responsible for the highly acclaimed "Testament" series that was shown on HBO. The claymation animation appeals to children, but the story telling will appeal to adults. I highly recommend this movie. Hulu has it at the moment, though I do not know how long they will carry it. The movie is here in its entirety. If you like it, please consider purchasing a copy (and check out Testament), this is a movie company that has shown quality and respectful translation of scripture to film.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Can we sing this in Sunday School?

HT: Faith House Manhattan

White Man
Words and music by Michael Gungor and Lisa Gungor

God is not a man
God is not a white man
God is not a man sitting on a cloud

God cannot be bought
God will not be boxed in
God will not be owned by religion

But God is love, God is love, and He loves everyone
God is love, God is love, and He loves everyone

God is not a man
God is not an old man
God does not belong to Republicans
God is not a flag
Not even American
And God does not depend on a government

But God is good, God is good, and He loves everyone
God is good, God is good, and He loves everyone

Atheists and Charlatans and Communists and Lesbians
And even old Pat Robertson, oh God He loves us all
Catholic or Protestant, Terrorist or President
Everybody, everybody, love, love, love, love, love

Oh, la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Yeah, I say God is love, God is love, and He loves everyone
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Stop the hating, please just stop the hating now cause God is love
Oh, whoa, la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la

© 2008 songs/ASCAP. Admin by EMI CMG Publishing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time Magazine Misses the Point on Education

Being a teacher in America is like being between a rock and a hard place; and if Time Magazine's latest article is an indicator, it doesn't look like that position is going to improve any time soon.

The article How to Raise the Standard in America's Schools is depressing for me as a teacher. In it the author, Walter Issacson, continues to make the same bad assumptions, apples and oranges comparisons, while offering the same tired solutions that schools have been saddled with for the past few decades.

The main thrust of the article is that America's schools need a national set of standards and benchmarks. He asserts that since No Child Left Behind let states set their own standards, it has been common for states to set the bar low in order to pass. In this, he mistakes symptom for cause. Throughout the article, he makes the case that it is the lowering of standards that is making America's students perform lower. Therefore his logic follows that setting high national standards will not allow local schools to skew numbers and will ultimately produce better results.

But setting higher standards as a way to improve achievement is, I believe, one of the primary failures of No Child Left Behind. It simply moves an arbitrary bar into the air without addressing the needs and conditions of various local schools. It would be like the Federal government coming to the car companies and saying, "We want you to develop cars that will time travel when they hit 88 miles an hour. If you don't have it to us in the next five years, we our going to shut down your company." This sounds absurd, but it is not far off the mark from edicts that are being handed to many public schools.

The author raises the fear that we are not being competitive on an international level. I do not dispute this point, but his solutions are based on apples and oranges comparisons. He never addresses the primary difference between the US and most Asian/European schools - Tracking. As early as the fourth grade, most schools outside the US begin tracking students towards an academic or trade-based education. Children who have an aptitude for academics are put together, while students who lack the desire or aptitude for academics are placed on a different course of schooling.

The effect of this on academic students cannot be overstated. I wrote an article last year (The Homeschooling Public School Teacher) that addressed the impact that disruptive students have in an academic classroom. Put simply, I believe students who do not desire an academic education cause our classrooms to lose a great deal of their effectiveness. It must be understood that there is nothing a classroom teacher can do about this but endure. Nothing, in our public schools, will be done about a disruptive student. They may spend some time in the office, or perhaps occasionally be suspended, but the majority of their time will be spent in the classroom as an anchor for the academic progress of their fellow students (and most classes have MANY students who fit this category).

In the end, Mr. Issacson repeats the same false assumptions about where our problems lie and therefore offers solutions that will give us more of the same. Solutions like those put forth by Mr. Issacson will punish American public schools for not producing the educational equivalent of a flux capacitor. These remedies never address the differences in our educational programs with those of our international competition; nor do they identify that students and their families are an x factor in the education equation that must be considered.

Unfortunately, President Obama seems to buy in to the logic of the Issacsons of America. This means we will have another decade spent missing the point; while teachers and schools remain the whipping boy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quotes from articles I read this week #5

It starts with the desire to bring all things in society under the good intentions of Jesus Christ, but not for the purpose of protecting us Christians from the "heathens" in society. And not for the purpose of coercing everybody in the society to bow to the rules of our puritanical God. No, it starts with a deep desire to see good done to all people, to bring hope and justice into the world as Jesus would have it, to bring heaven onto earth so that people can experience the goodness of God.
Vanguard Church

In sum, jokes are boundaries. Jokes mark off a shared space. A space of shared attitudes and experiences. A joke is compressed because it functions as a kind of test. Do you share my view of the world? Are you with me? Are you an insider or an outsider? This facet of jokes--tests of inclusion--is why jokes are both wonderful and wounding. They are wonderful when they are shared. But jokes wound when they exclude people and when they deploy toxic stereotypes. Further, jokes become contested when outsiders attempt to enter the space (i.e., tell the joke) before gaining the consent of the insiders. This is why the ethnicity of a person telling an ethnic joke is vital to understanding the nature and function of the joke.

Jokes are complex and morally treacherous. They bring us together and force us apart. They embrace and exclude.
Experimental Theology

The way in which the Christian story has been presented and practiced is not holding “true” for people who may still believe what Christians say are the central tenets of the faith. To put it bluntly, people aren’t rejecting Christ — they’re rejecting Christianity… at least, the version of it that we’ve been presenting.
Subversive Influence

Dad was reborn at 6:40 this morning with all of his family around him singing you raise me up. It was the most beautiful thing we have all ever witnessed. We will see you again Daddy.
Bold Grace

I believe those seeking to create a truly pluralistic world will avoid the extremes of neo-colonialism and hyper-tolerance. We won’t stick our heads in the sand or try to impose our culture values onto others, but we will also not fail to love others (especially the oppressed) in a desire to merely tolerate who they are. True pluralism engages, and learns, and wrestles with justice – and in doing so extends God’s love to all.

The Universalist cannot reject the inherent wisdom of these traditions, the profound experiences of spirituality shared by billions across the world, or the vast wisdom accumulated in different religions and philosophies. It is not true that we believe all religions are equal or saying the same thing. What we do believe is what GodQuest says: All religions, despite their mistakes, possess truth and it would be foolish to limit Truth by culture and tradition.
The New Unitarian Universalist

I suppose I’m just coming to realize that in some way we really do become how we act, and I have just gotten snarkier over the years. Less patient. Less forgiving. And I think that’s due not to the abandonment of evangelical practice, or because I’m not praying enough, or what have you. It’s because I gave myself permission to be a jerk in dealing with your excesses. I’ve learned that you just can’t compartmentalize anger and resentment. It works its way through the rest of you like… well, like yeast, to borrow an analogy.
SCP Nation

I am concerned that two storms are converging on the America we love. The belief that the government is going to take our guns and the belief that it is patriotic to take up arms to protect those rights. Pepper this with a healthy dose of racism and we could see a local insurgency that pales to the ones we have seen in the middle east. I believe in the spreading of hate, and paranoia the conservative news and talk radio outlets will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, gun violence will increase and so will the government's call the stop the blood shed. I am for lobbying to protect our rights, however, we are seeing unwarranted paranoia over legislation that has not been drafted, not been introduced, and not passed. If we spent more time studying the way our government functioned and less time assuming that a president can dictate law we might all sleep better.
It's a Curmudgeon's Life

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Judging Lets You Be In Control

Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that judging gives the illusion of control.

I have been told that the theological trouble with "people like [me]" is that we are too wishy-washy; we don't take a stand on anything. Concern with loving everyone nullifies speaking truth to anyone.

I always find these observations amusing because I think I tend to be very theologically opinionated (and have the scripture to back it). I am forever telling people what I think.

So, why the limp perception?

I think it is my approach. Though I may have a strong opinion about something, I usually leave the door open for new nuances and information. I believe absolutism is more dangerous than relativism. Since I am confident that there are many places where I presently misperceive God, it seems silly for me to get too haughty in my perceptions of other people's misperceptions. As Paul said in Romans 2:

You therefore have no excuse, you who try to pass judgment on someone else. For at whatever point you condemn the other, you are condemning yourself... because you who pass judgment do the same things.

I have a suspicion: People who believe loving speech is often not truthful, rarely speak lovingly. They usually state that speaking "truth" is loving.

I have a number of LDS friends who know every disagreement I have with them theologically (and vice versa). Yet, they do not feel judged by me (nor I by them). Why is that? I would say it is because I in no way feel that they have to accept my views or have their views be acceptable to me. That is what much of Christian judgment is - deeming someone unacceptable to God.

I once said to a commenter on this blog, who has a problem with Mormons and those of us who are not stern enough with them, "It sounds like you have a lot of requirements and hoops for people to jump through in order to get right with you." That is what I think the crux of it is - for someone who is judging, they are waiting for the other to get right with THEM... God is secondary. I think Romans 14 is the answer to those of us who want to go around correcting the lives of others:

Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

(The universalist in me loves Paul's clarification that those we anticipate to fall due to doctrinal differences will stand.)

Judging is a weak short-cut to an appearance of spirituality. Rather than having our lives be our testimony and our ideas be discovered to be worthy (or not) in the crucible of life, judging wants to use God's name as a trump card. It seeks to raise us over our brothers and sisters through "beliefs" and postulates. It requires little but seeks to gain the first seat. Is this not the real meaning of using God's name in vain?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quotes from articles I read this week #4

Obama steps out of being an American to offer an observation and criticism from that meta-location. For Hannity, this move is inherently unAmerican. There is something suspicious and unpatriotic about stepping out of the American matrix. Thus we find the classic conservative/liberal debate. Liberals often step out of or away from America to achieve a stance of critical objectivity. Conservatives find that move, generally speaking, unpatriotic. To be meta- is to be un-.
Experimental Theology

* Stop Invoking Ronald Reagan: Hey, I loved the Great Communicator as much as any Republican. I cast my first vote for him in 1984 and grew misty eyed when he would describe America as that "City on a Hill". He drew millions of "Reagan Democrats" across party lines much like Obama did with the Republicans in '08 BUT he was first elected President almost 30 years ago and he was old then. We have millions of new voters who predominantly voted Democrat this election and only yawn when Reagan is invoked. It only serves to re enforce the perception that the GOP is a party of the dinosaur.
Beyond the Pale

"Have you told a lie?" "Yes." "Then as far as God is concerned you are a liar." You may have heard this conversation before. This is how the whole gospel is altered, conversion becomes founded upon humankind's failure rather than Christ's victory and sin's subsequent release of us. When this is our language, God holds death over us as fear tactics in order to keep his power rather than defeating death and displaying his power by offering life. Is not, in fact, death "the last enemy to be destroyed"? Sin becomes an abstract, floating ideal, that is basically wrong because God said so, and that's it, rather than a concrete system of oppression and dehumanization which can be countered concretely however "impractically" (... I hate the word "practical"). The invitation to follow Jesus becomes an invitation to escape hell rather than an invitation to bring heaven to the world.
Living in the Kingdom

All that aside, I believe it is absolutely essential that we include people in our circle of friends who do not agree with us in all respects. There is a LOT of room for disagreement on different issues between intelligent people, and we should all be willing to respect that...not to mention that this creates opportunities to learn from one another, and debating is always fun once in awhile (how boring would life be if we we all thought the same about everything?) Besides, the Nazarene said "Love your enemies", and even if someone does consider you evil because of what you believe for whatever reason, you still have a responsibility to love them back. You don't get a choice about that. Jesus pointed out that no extra credit is given to people who love their friends and family. Anybody can do that.
Unitarian Univeralist

After days of traveling the dark valley, I once again see the light of life. These lights make up my children, my family, my friends, my doctor and all the medical professionals willing to help me. I have hospice which takes away a lot of fear. They are here to meet all my needs. I’m grateful to all those out there meeting my needs and my spiritual needs. I really enjoyed seeing Bruce. The doctor ensured me again that I have about 6 months and it should come easy. I don’t consider this a death experience, I can consider this a birth experience. In every labor there is pain and in every labor there is time to let go of the placenta of life and reach on to the power and energy of what is the new life and I look forward to that. If it’s possible I hope one of those great energies is the ability to see my Dad. My faith has not change and I believe in a perfect God who has a perfect process for each of us. That’s why we have nothing to fear because every piece of the puzzle is perfect. There is absolutely no fear in where I am at. I feel surrounded by angels of peace. Keep watching because I am not done yet!
Bold Grace

(The above photo is my view out the window as I read these blogs.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I think Richard Rohr may become my new favorite author

Richard Rohr was one of the speakers at the Emergent Church conference in Albuquerque last month. He is a Franciscan priest and his organization, the Center for Action and Contemplation, hosted the event. Although I had not read his books or heard him speak before; I left the conference determined to get some of his books in my collection.

I have been listening to some of his audio on the web, and I was really drawn to this quote by him:

"Judgment is not, by and large, a search for Truth. It is certainly not a path toward Love. What it is, is a search for control - a way that the Ego positions itself as better, righter, above, correct, in charge, in control. Once you see that... judgment starts losing its fascination. My great disappointment in so much of institutional religion is that it actually trains us to be judgmental".

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Where does the authority come from?

This was a question that was repeated many times throughout the Emergent conference in Albuquerque a few weekends ago. It was the central question of a talk given by Phyllis Tickle as she shared ideas from her book The Great Emergence. Her basic premise was that every 500 years or so, the church (universal) goes through a rummage sale of sorts because the institutions of Christianity become overly bogged down with themselves. Then "reformations" happen, when everything goes on the table, and the church must look again at where its authority comes from.

Everyone had thoughts on this throughout the weekend and it was interesting to hear the different perspectives. Most agreed that Luther's assertion of Sola Scriptura had the unintended consequence of forming a myriad of schisms... as different groups took away different priorities and interpretations from said scripture.

The central problem with schisms, according to Brian McLaren, were not the schisms themselves; but rather that each schism tried de-legitimatize every group above it (or below it).

The question of authority still remains, but here is my take on it. Any authority other than yourself is always going to be problematic. The minute you start relying on statements like "What my church teaches is...." then you have outsourced your discernment to someone else. You have removed yourself from accountability (or at least tried to). That is why, I believe, Peter set a standard of a priesthood of ALL believers. Hebrews concurs "in the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets... but in these last days, He has spoken to us by his Son."

In the end, I will stand before God to give an account (Hebrews 4:13). I think the awareness of personal accountability is what is causing house churches and spiritual communities to catch on more. For many Christians, the days of being dependent on a Pastor are growing old. I think there will always be a need for an administrative authority in churches, but the assumption of spiritual authority has developed a generation who's discernment has atrophied. They didn't need it.... the pastor/bishop/priest told them what to think. That era, I believe, is coming to a close. I may harness my carriage to a teacher like McLaren or Claiborne at times, but I will always hold the reigns.

I think the upcoming generation will differ in that, rather than trying to de-legitimatize the paths of others, we will be looking to garner something from their view of life, scripture, and God. We will not feel the need to abandon the traditions we grew up in (though we will have the freedom to do so), rather we can view them as a sanctuary, but no longer the destination.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher

Former President Bush once said that he wanted to "liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools". These kinds of statements are often directed toward inner city schools by politicians trying to look like they are doing something about education. If kids are failing, it must be something to do with the school.

I always knew intuitively that this was bogus even when I taught in a wealthy suburban school. I knew you could swap all the teachers in my Rochester district with all the teachers in Detroit... and in 5 years you would pretty much have the same results.

So why do kids in inner city schools do less well typically? Well, I have only been teaching in an inner city school for 5 years, but here are some of my observations (my present school has a large immigrant and refugee population, English is the second language for most of my kids):

Inner-city students are not taught at their learning level.
Grade level content is arbitrary. For the majority of my suburban students, content and reading level were appropriate for where they were at. My fifth grade students could read at a fifth grade level or better. They had deep English vocabularies. When tested at the end of the year, the standardized tests are within range of of their reading abilities.

Most of my present students read many years below grade level. Content texts tend to be too advanced. Though the students cannot read the end of the year tests adequately, they are still expected to pass them.

Every child has a learning edge, and most suburban schools follow that edge. Inner city schools are expected to follow the same direction, programs, and plans... even though the learning is too advanced for their learning edge. This effect snowballs over time. Because we have a "ready or not, here you go" approach to grade advancement, many students fall behind more each year. Students are advanced regardless of whether or not they have acquired the pre-requisite skills for what comes next. For example, I am expected to follow the 6th grade math core for Utah, even though most of my students do not have the numeration skills necessary to make the 6th grade core meaningful. The emphasis is not on what skill should come next based on where the student is, but what is supposed to be taught based on the students' age.

In the end, most suburban students are being instructed at their learning level, while most inner-city students are being instructed at their frustration level. I do not find it surprising that nearly one third of my students will drop out of high school someday. If they find themselves overwhelmed by sixth grade material they are not ready for, what will 11th grade material look like?

Equality is not Equitable
Many school districts and states provide equal resources to schools regardless of need. It is not uncommon to find that schools who have hundreds of ESL students receive the same amount of support as a school that has a handful. Each school is given one ESL instructor. In many cases, Title 1 money is used to pay for things that other schools are given as part of their budget.

Speaking English is not the same as knowing English
People assume that someone who can speak English is ready for academic vocabulary. The truth is that most of my students have a fraction of the usable vocabulary of their suburban counterparts. Imagine learning to speak German and you can carry on casual conversation in German after a year or two. Now picture being dropped into a German University in a level 200 biology class. Lectures and text are using advanced German. Still feel that your German is solid?

But even in this example you would be at a tremendous advantage. Since you are already educated in your native language, you have tremendous knowledge that only requires transfer. Most of my students' Spanish is not much further along than their English.

Student text will often elaborate to help the students with meaning. For example, our reading text restated the word bicker a sentence later as quarrel. The problem is, not one of my students knew what EITHER word meant; whereas my 10 year old knew both and my 7 year old knew one. Inner-city students tend to have more limited life experiences and live in homes where simpler English is spoken. This has no small effect of their ability to grasp textual meaning.

Suburban Parental Involvement
This key element cannot be overestimated. Show me a parent who is engaged in their child's education, and I will show you a student who is doing well. There are exceptions in either direction, but this is truth the majority of time.

Do not feel that inner-city parents are more neglectful. In many cases, these parents are working multiple jobs to keep house and home together. Also, though most of my students are behind, many have more education than their parents. Their parents simply do not know what they should be doing to help their child.

This also plays out at the school itself. Go to a suburban school, and you will see a myriad of parent volunteers helping with everything from running copies, doing recess duty, or teaching art class - not so in inner-city schools.

Even field trips are more beneficial in a suburban school. When I taught in Rochester, I could divide my students so that there was one parent with every 4-6 kids. The parents were enormously beneficial in terms of keeping the learning at the forefront of the field trip. Nowadays, it is just me and the class... a bit more like crowd control.

Parent involvement also affects advocacy. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Suburban parent involvement got over the top sometimes, but overall it was a good benefit for kids.

Lack of school stability
If you asked my suburban class how many of them at 5th grade had also attended our school in Kindergarten, most hands would have gone up. If you ask my present 6th grade class, you would get only a few.

Many of my students bounce from school to school as their parents follow jobs, or work out apartment deals, or need to move in with family. Going back to parent involvement, if a parent has had their children do their elementary career at the same school, they tend to feel it is "their" school. However, many inner city parents never stay long enough to develop that connection. Why invest if we will be gone in 7 months? Compare the PTA membership at an inner-city school with a suburban school.

So what?
I don't write this to make excuses, but rather to point out the factors that really contribute to student outcomes. Politicians focus on tests, and merit pay, and blaming schools... none of which, I believe, have any real effect.

What do I propose?
I think there are two main things we need to do:

First, quit advancing students based on age. I know the common wisdom says this would damage self-esteem, but I see this as only putting off that blow. It will be much worse when he or she drops out of high school. Besides if everyone were truly leveled, you would have such a mix that no one would stand out. So why don't we do it? It is expensive.

Second, schools and politicians need to start preaching the message of parental involvement. I often hear in meetings "Well, we can't control parental involvement, so let's focus on what we can control." I believe this attitude has encouraged many parents to see schools as baby sitting rather than partners. If we don't say it, who will?

More on this topic: Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher - State Testing
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