Teaching yourself

As with Diane’s latest, this is my last post before Joanne comes back. This isn’t about any story in particular — it’s just some thoughts that I’ve got on teaching. Yep — it’s shameless preaching time. So gather ’round and let me tell y’all what I think. The title of this post is “Teaching yourself”. Teaching, of course, takes two objects: one teaches something to someone. When I say “teaching yourself” I mean teaching yourself to someone else. But what does that mean?

Well, let’s start with admitting that I’m talking about at least two separate, but related things: let’s call them style and substance. Every teacher has a style of their own — whether or not it has been developed or not. Every teacher also has knowledge and experience — substance — which I think can be usefully contrasted with “content”. “Content” in modern parlance is the stuff that’s in books and curricular guides, the stuff that everyone thinks should be taught to students. When I say “substance”, I’m talking about what’s in the teacher’s head, and more specifically, about how it’s situated in there and how it’s expressed in the teacher’s own way of doing things.

Let’s talk about style first. Diane recently advised teachers to avoid ickiness. She put it really well, so I’ll use her words:

Teachers often get told what to do and how to do it, but intelligent administrators realize that they won’t (and shouldn’t) follow directives to the letter. When deciding what to follow, what to adapt, and what to ignore, a teacher can safely put icky things in the last two piles. One can take an icky thing and make it less icky, or one can avoid it altogether. No teacher should have to descend into anything tacky or dumb. (Of course, what’s icky for one teacher may not be so for another.)

Following your “gut”, as Diane puts it, is really good advice. It’s good to break tablets, to explore — but the reason for doing that is to discover and refine your own style of teaching. (It helps if you’ve learned from people who know what they’re doing themselves.) If your teaching style isn’t amenable to lots of group work, don’t assign a lot of group work. You’ll quickly find out whether it fits your style by trying it out. The same goes for lectures: some teachers just suck at lecturing. Others are brilliant. Do what you need to do. My own personal style is highly Socratic; that’s how I was taught, and that’s what I have a natural affinity for.

But being true to your own style isn’t just about making yourself comfortable. It’s also about your students. Teaching takes place in the context of interpersonal relationships between teachers and students. Some of these relationships might be frightfully superficial given the context of institutional education, but that’s not nearly as large a problem as inauthenticity. Students can tell when you’re faking it, and if the students don’t trust you to be who you are, they won’t want to listen to anything that you have to say. Mutual respect is impossible if one party or the other is trying to be someone they really aren’t.

But style is just the “how”. More important is the “what” that is taught, the substance. And it’s here that I think people have, from time to time, gone a bit off the reservation in how they think about teaching. There is an insidious view that lurks about these days that holds teaching to be a substantive skill of its own, and the content to be something like a program run on the “good teaching OS”. Get a good teacher, give the teacher a curricular guide, and we’re off to the races.

This view is, I think, nonsense. (Sometimes I feel like it’s on its way out, which is a relief. But then we get things like “Common Core” and I’m nervous again.)

I think it’s the job of the teacher, to some extent or another, to make the student more like the teacher. Now, that sounds incredibly narcissistic, and given who is writing this, I want to explain what I mean. There are obviously limits to this: if I’m hired as an English teacher, I’m not going to make my students more like me in terms of my sense of humor or my knowledge and skill at fencing. My job as an English teacher isn’t to pass on some sterile set of alienated skills, but rather to make my students more like me in terms of my ability to read, interpret, and express myself in written form.

But skills don’t exist in a vacuum: they exist in the context of personal style. There’s no Platonic “writing skill” out there in the ether. There’s Michael Lopez’s writing skill; there’s Diane Senechal’s writing skill; there’s Joanne Jacobs’ writing skill; there’s Cal’s and Crimson Wife’s and Engineer Poet’s and Richard Aubrey’s writing skills. Do these all have certain characteristics in common? Sure. There are general rules of writing and style — but these rules are meaningless on their own. They need to be demonstrated within a specific context, and if the teacher isn’t using (one of) his or her own context(s), then the teaching isn’t going to be as good. I can’t show students how to generically “pick the best word” for what they mean. I can only show them how I go about thinking about it.

Once they master Mike Lopez style, and maybe several other styles… then the student will start to develop their own style. Maybe. That’s the highest level of learning, and it’s something into which that we as educators have surprisingly little input outside of establishing the foundational skills.

Anyway, the trick to good education (or one of them, anyway) is getting teachers who are the sorts of people — in relevant respects — that you want your students to be. We don’t need “highly qualified” teachers, we just need teachers we can look at and say, “Yeah, I want my child to be more like that.”

Teachers always talk — and rightfully so — about giving so much of themselves to their work, about putting themselves into their work body and soul. That’s good talk. Because that’s exactly what should be going on. And the reason it should be what’s going on is that the only thing, at the end of the day, that a teacher has to teach is themselves.

So teach yourself. And if you’re worth anything at all, you’ll get good results.

Many thanks to Joanne, Diane, and all of the commenters here at everyone’s favourite edu-blog.

A nuclear engineer who can’t work under pressure

This piece about students handling pressure is older, from early February, but I wasn’t blogging back then when I read it, and I am blogging now. It’s an interesting article that discusses a distinction between two genotypes, the effects of a gene on the brain’s ability to clear dopamine, and the effect of that ability on academic performance of various sorts. There’s no way to summarize the really interesting part in quotes, so go read the whole thing. I’ll settle for quoting the overall conclusion about competition:

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

To this I’d only add that being able to perform under high pressure is itself an important skill, one that is needed in many fields. When the stuff hits the fan, you hope you’ve hired the person who isn’t going to freeze on you, who isn’t going to panic. You want to have hired the person who can keep their head when all around them are losing theirs. For some fields, this isn’t really an issue: you don’t need high pressure librarians, for instance. And no poet I’ve ever met needed to make a snap decision NOW.

Now, I fully admit that how a small child handles stress isn’t necessarily indicative of how the adult he or she will become will handle stress. I also recognize that there are many types of nuclear engineers, and some work solely in design. But still, this tickled my funny bone:

Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

Not the language of scientists

Today, the New York times quoted an expert — a psychologist. Either that, or they reached for some random person halfway across the country to offer a viewpoint they really liked. But it seems like they wanted to have comments by a scientist. Here’s what the psychologist had to say about the fact that New York City admits more boys than girls to its top elite schools (which admission is apparently only by exam):

“It is very suspect that you don’t have as many girls as boys in New York City’s specialized schools,” said Janet S. Hyde, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin who has published research on girls’ performance in math and science from elementary school through college. Individual girls might be losing opportunities, she said, “but it is also bad for society as a whole because in a global economy we need to identify the best scientists and mathematicians.”

When a scientist says that something is “suspect”, what they are supposed to mean is that it might not be true.

“I discovered cold fusion,” I might say.

“That seems suspect,” the scientist might reply.

But Dr. Hyde (that was cheap — eds.) is not using the language of scientists. She’s saying that it’s morally suspect, and opining about what is good and bad for society. Which is fine, I suppose — people can opine about these issues, and people in one of my fields (Philosophy) make it part of their job. But if Dr. Hyde isn’t speaking as a scientist, then we’re really back to “some random person in Wisconsin thinks admitting students to a school based solely on an examination is a bad idea because they apparently think the tests don’t identify the best scientists and mathematicians.”

In which case, why do I care?

The question of whether schools should be allowed to use a single examination for admissions is an interesting one. I don’t think that the answer is obvious, and I encourage a lively debate in the comments. But I’m also pretty sure that the mere fact that these examinations yield male majorities in the students body doesn’t make them any more suspect as tools for identifying mathematical ability than nearly every college admission system in the country is made suspect as an indicator of academic excellence by the fact that they seem to admit more females. Different admissions systems measure different things — and as one of my former professors was fond of saying, “[evaluations] don’t measure what they want to measure, they measure what they measure.”

In any case, the question is certainly not going to be settled by the random musings of some person in Wisconsin who thinks that the tests are “suspect”.

(Of course, it’s not going to be settled by the random musings of an attorney-philosopher, either. But I’m neither trying to settle it nor being quoted for my expertise in the New York Times.)

College as culture

Whether a high school sends its graduates into the world, or off to college, is apparently a matter of institutional culture. In other words, like many other cultural issues, it can not only be changed, but once it does start to change, it becomes self-reinforcing. David Leonhardt of the NY Times Economix blog posts about the story of a magnet school in Bridgeport, CT (which, not to be mean, has always sort of typified “run down city” to me).

The evolution of Central Magnet over the last 30 years, in [guidance counselor] Mr. Moran’s telling, highlights how this pattern might change. Over the years, more Central Magnet students began to apply to and attend selective colleges. As they did, the students in subsequent years began to see applying to those colleges as a normal thing to do. Moving 50 miles, or hundreds of miles, away from home was no longer deeply unusual for a top student.

By now, Central Magnet graduates have attended all eight Ivy League universities, liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Colgate, Haverford, Vassar and even Rice University, some 1,500 miles away, in Houston. “All these schools that were completely unheard of in the last five years are suddenly standard fare,” Mr. Moran said. Among the 140 or so students in a senior class at Central Magnet, more than 70 percent enroll in a four-year college and about 20 percent enroll in a two-year college, he said.

I’ve always maintained that the best thing that ever happened to me was in 7th grade, when I somehow — to this day I’m not sure how, though it probably had something to do with the school play — fell in with a good crowd of rich white girls. (I know now that they weren’t rich, but these things are relative.) It didn’t make me into a good student, but it made me value the valuable things in my education, and that made all the difference. The culture I grew up in was defined in great part by them and their parents.

Kids and adolescents are impressionable, generally conformist even as they’re dying their hair pink, and pretty culturally plastic. If you can make intellectual development and social respectability “the thing to do”, you’ll have gone a long way to building a good future for students. Kudos to Central Magnet for making a positive cultural change.

In a word, yes

Is it fair to put the total blame on a student’s academic performance on his or her coach?

That’s one of the questions with which Valerie Strauss (it must be a Strauss sort of day; my last post was spurred by her as well… so many thanks to Ms. Strauss) ends this blog post, which discusses some comments from our nation’s Secretary of Education.

The larger question at issue is whether college coaches — particularly public university coaches — should be fined for athletes’ failure to graduate.

I say that the answer is obviously yes. And the reason is this: it’s not that the coach has control of the student’s academics… but the coach does have a surprising amount of control over who gets admitted to the school on the basis of athletics. If coaches know that they’ll be held responsible, there will be an incentive not to recruit students who don’t have a realistic chance at graduating.

That’s where you’ll see the effect of this sort of policy.

The trick is that you need to make it so that the penalty for having non-graduating students is bigger than the payoff for having a winning team. Otherwise, the behavior will still persist, because it’s just a smaller incentive pointing in the same direction.

Now, maybe that means that you end up “pricing out” all the best coaches from public universities, so that only private schools like Notre Dame (football) and Duke (basketball) can afford the best coaches. Eh… so what if that happened?* That doesn’t seem like such a bad outcome to me. I’m all for college sports. But they’re called college sports and not just “the minor leagues” for a reason.

I don’t begrudge coaches their millions; I’m a fan of free markets. But a coach is a university employee, and that means that one of their jobs is (or should be) upholding the mission and reputation of the university. And that mission should — and I say “should” in the most skeptical sense — be about turning out educated minds, not about hanging championship banners.

Coaches are also hired to do that, but that job should be tempered by their broader institutional commitments. The job of a university isn’t to make money. That’s simply something universities have to do in order to accomplish their mission.

* (I’d note that neither Notre Dame nor Duke really has the same sort of problem with sports and academics that many big public universities seem to have.)

Moral cowardice and the educational policy we deserve

We call it by many names: drawing lines, making judgment calls, exercising discretion, setting limits. As human beings, we’ve got an inborn tendency to want routines — rules that we can follow to minimize the amount of time we spend making decisions. If we had to actually decide, consciously, whether to stop at each and every red light, our lives would be unbearable.

But we also are a pretty smart species, which means that we know that our general rules don’t always apply. So we make judgment calls, we make exceptions. We use “common sense”, which Descartes claimed was the best-distributed thing in the world. If we’re being chased by a car full of murderers, we don’t stop at the red lights.

The social institutions that we build also follow rules. We “set policy”. But whereas as a species we have a pretty good handle on how to bend the rules on an individual basis, as a society we really don’t have a handle on striking the balance between giving discretion in the execution of policy on the one hand, and avoiding the sort of corruption that can arise from unfettered discretion on the other.

My favourite example of this is “zero tolerance” policies, about which I’ve written extensively in the past. But the mindless application of policy can take other forms, just as intellectually and morally offensive, and even a bit macabre:

Blind, severely disabled boy forced to take standardized test.

Michael is nine years old. Born prematurely, he weighed four pounds. He has a brain stem but, according to doctors, most of his brain is missing.

No problem, says the state. An alternative version will be sent—pictures that Michael can describe.

Unfortunately, Michael is blind.

No problem, says the State. There’s a Braille version.

Michael doesn’t know Braille, and is unlikely to ever be able to learn it.

The first thing I want to do is point out about this situation is that “the State” never said a damn thing. Some individual person, acting on behalf of the people of the State of Florida, made these decisions.

Now, that person probably doesn’t think that he or she has done anything wrong: after all, policy is policy, and the people of the State of spoken in passing the laws that they’ve passed, and in appointing the people they did to write the regulations that were written. Who is this sole individual to take it upon him or herself to contradict the “wisdom” of publicly-announced policy?

This is, of course, the dilemma. As a representative of the people, are you entitled to make your own decisions about such things? And if you do, don’t you risk being wrong? Couldn’t some judge somewhere decide that you weren’t applying the law equally? Better to just follow policy — at least that way you won’t have made any sort of mistake for which you can be held accountable.

Through intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy, along with meticulous efforts of his Hospital/Homebound teachers for the past seven years, Ethan has achieved very limited and rudimentary communication skills. He has a very slight thumb lift with his left hand to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Ethan has been required to take the Florida Alternate Assessment for the past two years, and in addition to the questions being entirely inappropriate for his level of cognition (he cannot comprehend questions about math, staplers, clocks, shoes, or even food) there is no way to accurately assess his understanding of the material being presented… Additionally, the testing procedure is extremely physically taxing for him, requiring him to sit in his wheelchair for long periods of time and focus on black and white pictures which are difficult for him to perceive at best… After the testing sessions, he is physically exhausted and often develops pressure sores from sitting in his wheelchair. He also has developed respiratory infections from fluid pooling in his lungs from the long testing sessions.

Ethan’s mother managed — after immense bureaucratic hassle — to get a waiver, good for one year.

I initially thought I’d blog about this article because it’s catchy and exciting and filled with all sorts of easy, low-hanging outrage.

And yes, it’s easy to point at these cases and accuse the state officials of being idiots. I know it’s easy; I’ve done it a lot. But it’s also, I’ve decided, the wrong thing to do.

The administrators who make decisions like this, who make decisions like suspending students for Pop-Tarts or poems, who make other sorts of jaw-droppingly stupid decisions… are not idiots. I don’t doubt for a second that, in most cases, if they believed that they wouldn’t be punished or criticized for making exceptions, that they would go ahead and apply policy in a common sense manner, giving exceptions to students like Michael and Ethan.

What they are is adept bureaucrats, with a cunning sense of survival. They are also moral cowards, after a fashion. And yes, that’s a failing. But we get the government we deserve. We get the policies we deserve. We get the bureaucrats we deserve. We’ve put a premium on moral cowardice; it’s rewarded.

If we want a school system that makes sense, a school system where wise administrators make wise decisions… then we need to be open to the possibility that this might require us to actually give the administrators some play on their leashes. And that might mean having to deal with some bad decisions from time to time; it might mean having to deal with a bit of corruption, racism, or sexism.

I don’t want to read any more stories about kids getting suspended for Pop Tarts. I don’t want to read any more stories about Michael and Ethan. I’d rather live in a world where even our officials are given room to make a few mistakes in judgment — because that means that they’ll be given room to do the right thing, too.

Could earlier kindergarten be the achievement gap solution?

Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.

Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.

So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.

What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.

These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.

By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.

Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.

Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.

Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?

Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

Two separate issues

Apropos of Diane’s recent post about “superfun sameness”, which touched on one of my own personal betes-noires, “relevance” in teaching, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this article out of Minnesota.

Here’s the skinny:

The St. Mary’s program is part of an effort among some teachers to make their classes more culturally relevant to their students. It requires the teachers — most of whom are white women — to find new ways to connect to struggling kids.

St. Mary’s instructor Marceline DuBose encourages her students to shake up their traditional teaching styles. She said music and movement can help capture students who learn differently.

The education system is already working best for white, middle-class kids, particularly female students, so it’s no surprise that many teachers share those traits, DuBose said. The state Department of Education estimates that less than 4 percent of Minnesota teachers are people of color. Yet more than a quarter of Minnesota’s students are nonwhite.

The upshot is that Minnesota’s white teachers need to practice making their teaching “culturally relevant”, the better to grab the hearts and minds of their students. They might even consider a graduate certificate in “culturally responsive teaching. That these sorts of programs exist and that they continue to grow isn’t really news… It’s probably nothing most readers of this blog have not heard before.

I want to focus on some specific language from the article, however, that makes me think that there is something very basic getting lost in these sorts of programs. I’ve emphasized the parts on which I want to dwell a bit.

Tracine Asberry, an African-American school board member and a former teacher in Minneapolis, says it’s natural to teach who you are. But if you come from a privileged background and don’t believe in the struggles faced by many people of color, your opinions can alienate a lot of kids.

“As teachers, teaching students who have different realities, we have to be aware of those things. We can’t just be aware of them. We have to be comfortable so that we can have the conversation, and then encourage our students to feel comfortable to have those conversations in our classroom.”

Asberry believes one way to close the achievement gap is to close the teacher gap. For some students of color, she says, the key might be as simple as making sure the person leading the classroom looks like them.

Let’s start with the painfully obvious. It’s not only natural to “teach who you are”, at least in a very broad sense, it’s sort of a logical requirement. With apologies to the lovely people who spend their time making up programs like the Common Core, it is an exercise in futility to attempt teaching some skill or bit of knowledge you do not actually possess. You have to teach who you are, because that’s all you have. That is not to say that you can’t change who you are over time, that you cannot broaden your perspective, and it certainly isn’t to say that you can’t understand other people’s perspectives. I am just acknowledging that putting an illiterate in front of a class with an English curriculum is madness.

Now, if you believe that you can only teach who you are (as I do) then the next bolded clause will give you nightmares. DIFFERENT REALITIES???. What the heck does that even mean? There is one reality. I can only assume that Asberry is being clumsily metaphorical here and means to say something like “students who have a substantially different way of seeing the world and communicating.” Of course, once you drop the vacuous metaphor and actually say what you mean, it becomes clear pretty quick that the differences aren’t all that great. Maybe the students don’t have the same views of authority, the same sense of the value of organization, the same (I’ve always loved this one) “future time orientation”. But once you are specific about the differences, they start to be manageable.

There seem to me to be two very separate issues at work here that are being muddled. The first is a question about pedagogy. The plain fact of the matter is that teachers need to know their students in order to be effective. You cannot teach if what you think is a signal of displeasure on your part is taken as a signal of approval on the part of your students. There needs to be some common ground for introducing the new material, or communication is impossible. And teaching is, if it is anything, a type of communication. (From a language and culture standpoint, I think that Lisa Delpit stands out as one of the only really sane CRT-type voices on this sort of issue. I don’t think her work Gospel, but it seems mostly on the right track.) It also helps if your teachers don’t objectively stink – if they are not racist, not sexist, and not given to ignoring their students’ various qualities.

But there is another issue, apart from pedagogy. That issue is one of cultural relevance in what is taught, as posed to awareness and sensitivity. The nature of education is to expand that which the student takes to be their culture. Think about it: a five year old has a culture… One that consists (hopefully) of household patterns, domestic relationships, and likely a healthy dose of mass media. Except in extreme circumstances, Hamlet isn’t part of a five year old’s culture. It is the job of a teacher to introduce poetry and math and music and shape the student’s culture. On some views, it is to introduce the student to an existing culture… Some dominant paradigm like “Western Culture” or somesuch. On other views, the role of the teacher is to allow the student to expand and shape their own sense of and place in their society’s culture. Still others think that the student should shape their own culture. (That way lies madness.)

My point is just this: pedagogical sensitivity and the ability to communicate with and teach students whose existing culture does not share as much with your own as might otherwise e the case is an issue separate and distinct from the question of whether certain material is “culturally relevant” to the student, and what sort of cultural picture for the student lies at the end of his or her education.

Finally… With respect to the last emphasized part of the article — the part about teachers looking like students, I just quoted that to show that for many people opining on this issue, it isn’t really about culture at all. They’re just racists, and they want the students to be racist, too.

H/T educationnews.org.

UPDATE: Minor typos corrected, including changing the rather accusative-sounding “you teachers” to “your teachers”, which was intended. Also a few small language clarifications. -ML

Reason #2,476

Homeschooled students get more sleep.

An interesting defense

Hereis the charge: some people claim that Wisconsin’s ed-bureaucracy, which we will call “DPI”, because that’s it’s name, seems to have endorsed throwing students into concentration camps. Well, that’s not really what is going on at all, but you might not know that from reading the defense. What is actually being claimed is that there seems to have been a recommendation made by someone, somewhere, that certain white people working under the auspices of a federal program in Wisconsin, through the DPI, might consider engaging in a program of psychological self-flagellation and submission to public criticism, all in the name of making them conscious of their “white privilege” (and unless you are completely out to lunch, you will notice that this is also an exercise in doing everything possible to keep them from exercising said privilege, assuming it exists in the first place).

Te crux of the criticisms is that it seems to have been recommended that the white people in question wear white wristbands, and submit themselves to uninvited discussions about what those white wristbands represent. Things go obviously (but not I think, unjustifiably) Godwin from there.

Here is the defense against the charge: No DPI official, or any VISTA volunteer, has used, requested, or encouraged, anyone in any school to use the wristbands as ‘reported’ and shared by external groups that thrive on spreading rumors and misinformation. The defense, and it is a defense, also notes that the wristband materials were provided to VISTA (that appears to be the federal program) volunteers after their training, as they left, as part of a supplemental packet. That packet was also posted to the DPI website where you can now find this defence, though the document itself has been removed.

I am not writing this post to preach about the merits of the white-privilege-awareness industry. They’re a group of people with strange ideas that, like most ideas, probably have some grain of truth to them. No, the reason I’m writing this post is to point out that, as far as defenses go, this one is an absolute disaster. On the one hand, it is a great defense because it creates a straw man charge and refutes it… With a sneering scare-quoted dollop of ad hominem on top. That’s good stuff.

But it also admits the very thing it wishes to deny. Compare:

No DPI official has… encouraged anyone in any school to use the wristbands as ‘reported’


Subsequently, that entire resource packet was posted to the VISTA website

Rule 1: admit nothing!!! Do they not know this?

The “VISTA” website of which they speak is actually the DPI’s VISTA website. It’s where you find this defense, written by DPI officials. But how did these materials get on the DPI website if not by the acts of a DPI official? And isn’t this obviously encouragement?

But now we see that I am wrong, and that this is actually a stunningly adept defense. There is phrase used… “Encouraged anyone in any school”. You might think that this means that no one associated with any school was encouraged to use the white privilege packet. But that is clearly not what it means at all, because as noted above, the posting of the materials to the website seems to qualify as “encouragement” on any account. What it actually means is that no encouragement took place in any school. The website is not a school.