Is Shakespeare necessary?

Does Romeo and Juliet have any interest for today’s students?

Shakespeare’s just another dead white male with nothing to say to ethnically diverse students, writes a California English teacher, who’s featured on Answer Sheet.

Dana Dusbiber doesn’t like Shakespeare herself — the language is too difficult — and doesn’t teach it to her “ethnically diverse” students.

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior.

. . .  as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important.

Shakespeare lived in “a small world,” she believes. The oral tradition of Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia “includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior,” writes Dusbiber.

If there’s not enough time to do it all, dump the Western canon. “If we only teach students of color, . . . then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives.”

It is “ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare,”, responds Matthew Truesdale, who teaches English at a rural South Carolina high school. He likes to teach Othello.

So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today?  Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience?  Or feel jealousy or rage?  Or fall victim to discrimination?  Or act desperately out of passion?  To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”

. . . When the general Othello, who has lived a life full of valor and who has had experiences far beyond and far greater than those of his men, still falls victim to Iago’s head games for no other reason than that he is different, an other, and can’t quite forget that, no matter his accomplishments, we empathize precisely because we’ve been there.

Teachers can link Shakespeare’s plays with other traditions, writes Truesdale. But we shouldn’t assume Shakespeare is for whites (or white male British-Americans) only.  Dusbiber’s argument “turns the English classroom into a place where no one should be challenged or asked to step out of their comfort zone, where we should not look beyond ourselves.” 

I’ve always thought people read Shakespeare for the language, not for life lessons. Well, I guess students could learn that feigning death is not the best way to get out of an arranged marriage. And don’t commit suicide — or murder your wife or your king —  too quickly. It might not be a good idea. On the other hand, don’t think too long about murdering your uncle. Get on with it before 3/4 of the Elsinore population is dead too and you need a Norwegian mop-up crew.

As it happens, I’m on my way to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to see some plays. For fun.

A Rolling Stone Gathers A Lawsuit

Last November, Rolling Stone magazine published an article about a brutal rape on the campus of the University of Virginia.  One fraternity and seven male students in particular were identified, the entire Greek system at UVa was penalized, and a pernicious myth of so-called rape culture on our university campuses was given new life.

As you can see at the link, Rolling Stone has since retracted the story as there was absolutely no corroborating evidence that the attack described took place.  The author, Sabrina Erdely, had actually published similar stories in the past, also without corroboration:

It should be noted here that Erdely had done at least two rape stories prior to “Jackie’s”—one concerning the US Navy and the other a Catholic parish in Philadelphia. No one at Rolling Stone apparently found it curious that Erdely stumbled upon festering rape scandals at the three institutions that together comprise the trifecta of left-wing hate objects—organized religion, the US military, and that bastion of male privilege, fraternities.

The “you raped someone” genie, already out of the bottle, cannot be put back in.  The reputations of the accused men cannot be repaired near as easily as they were trashed, and with the assistance of UVa President Teresa Sullivan to boot!

Is anyone but me seeing shades of the Duke Lacrosse Story here?

The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism conducted an investigation and, according to The New York Times, they weren’t kind to Rolling Stone:

Rolling Stone magazine retracted its article about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity after the release of a report on Sunday that concluded the widely discredited piece was the result of failures at every stage of the process.

The report, published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone, said the magazine failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify details of the ordeal that the magazine’s source, identified only as Jackie, described to the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

One would think that the fraternity brothers would sue Rolling Stone, Sabrina Erdely, and perhaps even Teresa Sullivan, but the first lawsuit against Rolling Stone is by an assistant dean:

Nicole P. Eramo, an associate dean of students at the University of Virginia who handles reports of sexual assault for the school, is suing Rolling Stone magazine over the way she was depicted in a now discredited story.

Eramo has filed suit against Rolling Stone LLC, parent company Wenner Media LLC, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article called “A Rape on Campus,” which painted a harrowing picture of a rape and its coverup at U.Va. The complaint was filed in the Charlottesville, Va., circuit court. Eramo is seeking a total of $7.85 million.

In her complaint, Eramo says, “Defendants’ purpose in publishing the article was to weave a narrative that depicted the University of Virginia (‘UVA’) as an institution that is indifferent to rape on campus, and more concerned with protecting its reputation than with assisting victims of sexual assault.”

One wonders why Associate Dean Eramo didn’t include her own university’s president in her lawsuit.

One wonders why any young men would want to apply to such a school in the future.

Backlash cancels hijab event

At a Cincinnati high school, Muslim students invited girls to wear a scarf or hijab for a day to build cultural awareness. Mason High’s Student Activities Department sent out an email promoting the “Covered Girl Challenge.”

Non-Muslim students try on hijabs at University of California Riverside for the Hijab Challenge. Photo: Ross French

Non-Muslim students try on hijabs at University of California Riverside for the Hijab Challenge. Photo: Ross French

After massive backlash, the principal apologized for the message implying this was a school-sponsored activity and canceled the event.

I think that’s a shame. What’s wrong with student group inviting girls to see what it’s like to look a Muslim? (Some Orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair with a scarf — or wear a wig.)

If the school required it, that would be a different story, but there’s no church-state issue here. Just hijab hysteria.

Madness? This. Is. PENNSYLVANIA!!!!

Field trip?
Permission slip.

Sex-ed videos?
Permission slip.

Rough contact sports?
Arguably permission slip.

Eating an Oreo?

A mother in Pennsylvania seems to have stirred up a teapot-sized tempest over one teacher’s having gone the extra mile in the great CYA-race (note that her tweets are protected, and only visible to confirmed followers):

Insanity. I have to sign a permission slip so my middle schooler can eat an Oreo. @FreeRangeKids
— Main Line Housewife (@mainlinewife) March 23, 2015

A copy of the letter that was sent home is available here, at, courtesy of Lenore Skenazy.

I understand the revulsion at this. I really do. But I think that calling it insanity is probably going too far. Just because your opponents on an issue are (or seem to you to be) insane does not thereby make everything that they do correspondingly nuts. I don’t think it’s crazy to check with a parent before giving their kid something to eat, particularly not when you’re acting in your official capacity as a teacher and a representative of the school. Because you can be damn sure that if some kid had an allergy, forgot about it, and died, that the school and the teacher would be in world of… doublestuff.

As it happens, the tool that the teacher has for making this sort of check-up with parents is the permission slip: it provides documented proof that the parent consented. Could there be a more elegant solution? Sure.

I’m a huge fan of so-called “free range” parenting — although I tend to recoil a bit at the name, because kids are not chickens. But whatever. I’m sympathetic.

But at the same time, I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine a few months ago about this — about how when we were teenagers (I’m only a little older than she) we had a lot of freedom that our students — this friend was also in graduate school at UCLA — don’t seem to possess. So you could all pile into the back of your friend’s pick up truck and just head up to the lake to hang out. No seatbelts, no helmets, no nothing except the radio and good times.

But that sort of freedom came with a cost: every year or so, some kid would die doing something ill-advised. It was like a tax — an offering to the Gods of freedom so that the rest of us could enjoy ourselves without care.

You can have a worry-free school where the teachers hand out Oreos willy-nilly, where people just go with the flow, and where students are able to leave campus for lunch without saying where they are going. You can have a childhood without bike helmets, without seatbelts, without car seats for 7-year olds.

But there’s going to be a cost. And picking one side or the other of this trade off isn’t “insanity”. And wanting to get a permission slip before distributing Oreos — however silly and fussy it may seem — isn’t quite madness.

It’s just Pennsylvania.

Pour encourager les autres

Back in 2011, Joanne blogged about the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal. She closed that post with the ominous line, “Some district officials may face criminal charges.”

I confess that I never believed anyone would actually be convicted of anything. Not, mind you, because I thought no one deserved to. I just figured, in my cynical way, that the unions would make such a big stink about this that no prosecutor’s office would have the stomach for the protracted public relations nightmare that I believed would ensue, and that even if the prosecutors had the moxie, no jury would ever convict.

The upside of being cynical is that it’s GLORIOUS when you’re wrong.

Eleven former Atlanta public school teachers and administrators were convicted of racketeering Wednesday for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal and face up to 20 years in prison, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

* * * *

Because bonuses and raises were awarded to the educators based on the test scores, prosecutors charged the educators with violating the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy. It’s a criminal statute that law enforcement typically uses to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.

The jurors had to decide if the educators were, in fact, part of a vast scheme, committed lesser felonies, or, as defense attorneys argued, were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former supervisors. The educators face sentencing next week.

Thirty-five people were indicted. Many reached plea deals.

I hate plea deals, honestly. I think that they are a perversion of justice that threaten to impose costs on the innocent for exercising their right to trial. If a prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the resources to prosecute all of their crimes, then they need to start sorting through the crimes and not prosecuting the small stuff.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of draconian punishments for people exercising dishonesty and/or corruption while holding public office. I don’t think that people take their jobs as public officials seriously enough, thinking somehow that being a public school teacher is the same thing as being a private school teacher, but with better benefits. It’s not, of course. As a public official — from governors and legislators to the lowliest DMV clerks and meter maids — you are being given the public trust to exercise an office on which the people of the state, country, or city have decided it is worth spending tax dollars, which are collected under penalty of imprisonment. I don’t care if all you did was change the answers on a few tests in order to get a bonus. That’s no longer “the small stuff” — it’s public corruption.

So I hope that the judge throws the book at these eleven.

You can see a rogue’s gallery of the convicted defendants here.

I confess, I was not aware that the defendants in this case were all visibly Black. I read a great deal about these cases, but never went in for the video reports or paid much attention to the pictures. I was somewhat taken aback when I clicked through to the link immediately above and saw that because in my mind’s eye I had always sort of imagined a bunch of Nice White Ladies working at underperforming schools, and I think that it changes the emotional texture of the story in some interesting ways. The color-blind anti-racist in me, however, gently reminds me that it doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — matter.

Hu, hus, hume.

A while back, I ran across some people who were upset at the way that the English language (and, frankly, Romance languages in general) didn’t have a gender neutral pronoun. It had been suggested by some among these people that a new pronoun was needed: “hu”. By adopting the use of “hu”, it was thought, we would free ourselves from the inherently sexist structure of traditional grammar. Many mocking jokes ensued, as is often the case when overly-earnest people attempt to force political and/or moral change through pure lexical fiat. (Cf. “differently abled”.)

Well, at least one university is addressing this issue, but not with “hu”. Rather, the University of Vermont will be committing to (not committing) one of the cardinal sins of traditional grammar: using “they” in the singular.

Gieselman began spending time at Outright Vermont, a trans and queer youth center where the gender lexicon of activists and academe is widely accepted. “As soon as I learned about a genderqueer identity, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the one!’” said Gieselman, who frequently ends sentences with a gentle laugh. “Before, it had been really difficult to explain how I was feeling to other people, and even really difficult to explain it in my own head. Suddenly, there was a language for it, and that started the journey.”

Gieselman dumped the girlie name bestowed at birth, asked friends and teachers to use Rocko, the tough-sounding nickname friends had come up with, and told people to use “they” instead of “he” or “she.” “They” has become an increasingly popular substitute for “he” or “she” in the transgender community, and the University of Vermont, a public institution of some 12,700 students, has agreed to use it.

I suppose this makes sense. Once you decide that pronouns should reflect the rather more malleable social concepts of gender rather than the somewhat less unyielding notion of biological sex — not an entirely unreasonable decision to make, mind you — it make sense that you’d go with “they” rather than “it”, which has a somewhat dehumanizing connotation.

I would like to point out, however, that a language with a lot of rules is a language with a lot of ability for differentiating various shades of meaning, and that the more you futz with things, the more ambiguity you introduce into the social discourse.

Of course, here, that sort of seems to be the point, right? And kudos to the University of Vermont for really committing to their ideals, and making the policy systemic and reflected in the pedagogical infrastructure:

The university allows students like Gieselman to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.

* * * *

Today, a growing number of students are embracing the idea that when it comes to classifying gender, there should be more than two options — something now afforded by the dating website OkCupid and by Facebook, which last year added a tab for “custom” alongside “male” and “female,” with some 50 options, including “agender,” “androgyne,” “pangender” and “trans person,” as well as an option for controlling who can see the customized version.

Of course, language can get out of hand when it bends completely to politics. I’m thinking of the “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM” community at my own alma mater, Wesleyan University. There may be a point where the individual control over language begins to interfere with its role as something held in the common intellect.

Where that line is, I don’t know. I suspect it’s somewhere between “they” and “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM”, or as one of my favourite songwriter/singers put it, “The truth is in between the first and the fortieth drink.”

Privacy in the classroom?

Via Instapundit, I am treated to the story of a student who was suspended for recording a teacher’s behavior in the classroom.

A Samuel Gaines Academy student was suspended this week after she says she was trying to defend a classmate.

Brianna Cooper, 11, says she took an audio recording in class of what she says depicted her teacher bullying a student.

Instead of receiving praise, Cooper says she was suspended for five days when the school said her video was illegal.

In legal terms… well, I’m not licensed to practice law in Florida, so I’ll leave this one up to the local police:

Law enforcement officers say recording someone without their knowledge can be legal so long as there is not an expectation of privacy.

So the questions to be asked here, it seems to me, are two:

First, does it matter at all whether the child’s recording was illegal or not? And second, if it does matter, is there an expectation of privacy in a classroom?

The first question seems fairly straightforward. In general, I think that most people would agree that behavior doesn’t need to be illegal to warrant suspension. Students get suspended all the time for doing things that are not in violation of any criminal (or even civil) statute. It’s not illegal, after all, to throw one’s book at the chalkboard in frustration, or to call one’s teacher a worthless sack of ignorance fit only for target practice. Yet these things will surely lead to suspension. So it doesn’t seem to me that it’s absolutely NECESSARY that the behavior be illegal in order for it to lead to a suspension. It may, however, be sufficient. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that a student who breaks the law at school is liable to be punished to some *lesser* extent by the school, through disciplinary procedures.

Now, the school appears to have stated that the reason for the suspension was that the behavior was illegal. But one could reasonably interpret that claim as arguing, essentially, “The student is being suspended for the behavior, and by the way this is entirely reasonable because the behavior in question is so bad that it’s illegal.”

Let’s give the school the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that the behavior is not, and need not be illegal at all. Can the school punish this student anyway?

I don’t think so. Even in the rights-impoverished climate that is the American public school, students have First Amendment rights. Is the exercise of those rights significantly curtailed by case law supporting the school’s ability to keep order and look after the student body’s welfare? Sure. But the rights still exist. I’m not a First Amendment lawyer of any stripe, but it strikes me that where the photographing or recording is being used for communicative purposes, or to gather information about what public officials are doing on public property, the First Amendment is squarely implicated. This certainly seems to be such a case.

That means, if I remember my Educational Con Law correctly, that in order to ban this behavior — even if it’s not illegal — that a school needs to show that there’s a reasonable concern that there will be a “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities” — the Tinker standard. There are a few other exceptions, but I don’t think they are relevant here.

So now let’s give me the benefit of the doubt, and say that I’m right and that the school does need the behavior to be illegal in order for the suspension to be righteous. Then the question becomes one of whether there is an “expectation of privacy” in the classroom. There’s a reasonable, albeit somewhat politically motivated discussion, of the relevant statutes here, discussing the recording of Mitt Romney’s remarks in Florida in 2012. The gist seems to be, with respect to the Florida statute anyway, that there are a lot of factors that can go into establishing or destroying an expectation of privacy:

One Florida appellate court has held that it did not violate the Florida wiretap act for a subordinate law enforcement officer to record his supervisors’ statements in a disciplinary interview; the court held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy because of the number of persons present (five, the subordinate and four senior officers), the location of the interview (in a sergeant’s office at a police station), and the nature of the interview (a disciplinary matter). Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Servs. v. Edwards, 654 So. 2d 628, 632-33 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); contrast Horning-Keating at 447 (legitimate expectation of privacy in communications between clients and attorney in attorney’s office).

Here, it’s a classroom. It’s a public building — one with restricted access for safety reasons, but a public building nonetheless. The teacher is a public employee carrying out her duties, in front of twenty or thirty other people who are sitting there watching.

Additionally, it does not strike me that the classroom is really a place of privacy: observers constantly come into classrooms to, well, you know… observe. Principals worth their salt regularly do walkarounds. Teachers themselves record their teaching when they are trying to get nationally certified, or sometimes for performance reviews. Certainly the students don’t have an expectation of privacy at a school that could easily be covered by CCTV cameras and teachers watching their every move. And from the student’s point of view, the classroom is not much different from the rest of the school. I don’t see why a teacher should have an expectation of privacy in a situation in which a student would not.

So my tentative conclusions are (1) that it probably does matter that the student’s behavior was illegal (assuming that the statute is Constitutionally sound), and (2) that there probably isn’t a reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom. And frankly, I’ve long thought that I’d *want* cameras recording everything that happened in my classroom if I were a public school teacher, both for my own edification and my legal protection. I can see why parents would want to be able to see what is happening in their child’s classroom, to verify or dispel the child’s complaints about school and about teachers. I think it’s not crazy to believe that principals should be able to flip a switch in their office and see what’s happening in their school’s classrooms.

So even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public school classroom — and I am skeptical of that claim — there probably shouldn’t be.

Private schools, on the other hand… are a different beast. Let them set themselves up however they want, and if parents like the monitored school, they can choose it. If teachers want a monitored classroom, they can take the job at the monitored school. And if they don’t, they can pick a school with a more reverent approach to classroom privacy.

Hollywood can save our families — but won’t

MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has increased searches for contraceptives and reduced teen births by 5.7 percent, a study concludes. 

Hollywood could “save our families” by changing story lines to promote stable, two-parent families, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. But don’t hold your breath.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent.

Extended families can help, but single parents have fewer relatives to call on, especially if the mother was raised by a single  mother, she notes. Government can’t make up for a missing parent. “Even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home,” writes McArdle.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent — between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn’t actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.

If Hollywood “believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do,” she concludes.

Chicago schools debut Latino studies

Kindergarteners will learn about the Mayan counting system.

Kindergarteners will learn about the Mayan counting system.

Chicago Public Schools will teach an interdisciplinary Latino and Latin American Studies curriculum to all K-10 students, Melissa Sanchez reports for Catalyst Chicago.

“Kindergartners can learn about the Mayan counting system while they’re learning numbers, and fifth-graders can learn about African influences on South American percussion during music class,” she writes.

“The history of Chicago cannot be written without celebrating the contributions of immigrants from Central America, South America and the Caribbean,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a district news release.

More than 45 percent of CPS students are Latino.

On The White Rhino, a Chicago English teacher named Ray Salazar called the curriculum well-intentioned but over-simplified.

Chicago already is piloting an African and African American studies curriculum that was released last year.

For $999, adults can go to ‘preschool’

Brooklynites who want to fingerpaint, play dress-up, snack and nap can pay $999 for five weeks of Preschool Mastermind, which bills itself as the world’s first preschool for adults.