Messing with Texas

I submit to you that the hardest challenge a writer will ever undertake is to use her words to change your mind about something. It’s child’s play to reaffirm ideas you already hold dear, it’s easy to strengthen ideas you’re already prone to, and it’s only moderately difficult to help you articulate something you believe but struggle to explain.

But to actually change your mind… that’s tough. Especially on a blog–how many of us even read blogs, or anything else, unless we’re already likely to agree with them? News articles with reliable, objective, new information might be the exception, except that journalists are continually thrown over for pundits, making such articles hard to find. And anyway, why read something objective and informative when you could read something with a little information and a lot of opinion that supports what you already think? I’m as guilty of this as the next person–it’s really easy for me to watch The Daily Show and call myself educated; it’s much more difficult to read the “World” section of the New York Times–which is to say nothing of how much I drag my feet to read, say, The Wall Street Journal. Bleh.

Jezebel is so much easier to stomach.

But the whole point of education is to learn something new–and not just learn it, but apply it. It’s not enough to know that “The God Particle” is just a nickname for the Higgs-Boson. In order to really be educated, I have to look beyond the headline and read a lot of difficult and dry scientific stuff–as close to a primary source as I can manage, not just an op-ed piece–to begin to understand just what the Higgs-Boson actually is. Then I have to call up that information every time I read about what the Higgs-Boson means regarding, say, religion, so that I can judge the new information against the old and decided for myself if I agree, disagree, or want to withhold opinion.

That is education. Not just the memorization of facts (though this is an important element as well, no matter how dull it seems), not just the understanding of those facts (again, still an important part), not even just the application of those facts to, say, a theory or principle, but the analysis of ideas–this is what critical thinking, and, thus, education, is.

As adults, it is up to us whether or not we pursue education. We can either read about Syria or we can read about the Kardashians. Or we can read about Syria, but only from the perspective of people who are likely to say something we like. Or we can read about how much better it would be if we were reading about Syria instead of reading about the Kardashians.

No matter what we do, it’s our choice. We’re not in school anymore, and we have every right to choose not to better ourselves.

We also have the right to choose for our own children. If I don’t want my child to be exposed to ideas with which I may not agree, whether those ideas seem too liberal for me or too conservative, I can keep her out of school. I can homeschool her or send her to a private school. I still have to pay my taxes to the public school, of course, because it’s not a free public education if the only people paying for it are those who are using it, but my child never has to darken the door of the facility. In fact, I’m well within my rights to prevent my kid from ever once being exposed to a piece of information or a line of thinking to which I have not already given my stamp of approval. (Well… sort of. But anyway, that’s a different conversation.)

I hope it goes without saying, though, that I don’t have the right to choose that for someone else’s child.

The truth is that free public education is a radical idea. We the people have all come together and said, “We want children–all children–to be taught to think for themselves,” and we want that education to be free, high-quality, identity-affirming, and nurturing. We want to pay for it even if we don’t have children ourselves. Even if we can’t stand our neighbors, we want to contribute to their children’s education.

Because we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.

In fact, the idea is so radical that I’ve suspected for some time that many people don’t actually believe it. They’ll pay it lip service, but when it comes down to the dollars and cents, they’d rather scream about teacher’s unions, illegal immigration, and school vouchers–in other words, issues that are so divisive, so complex, and, ultimately, so dry (if you really read the full-text primary sources on the subjects) that they muddy the waters and everyone forgets we’re all together here–we do have a common goal, and the road map for getting there is clearly marked.

That is, it’s clearly marked if we all agree that our founding fathers were right that everyone is equal and everyone should be educated as such.

Texas GOP crush your head!

I would actually get it if someone stood up and said, “You know what? I don’t agree with our founding fathers. We shouldn’t educate everyone equally, because everyone isn’t equal. The founding fathers didn’t know we’d be unable to close our borders. Christian, English-speaking Americans are equal, but everyone else is unwelcome, and we don’t want to educate them unless they want to become Christian, English-speaking Americans.”

I wouldn’t agree with them–I’d don my critical thinking cap and decide that these people were xenophobic, racist elitists–but I would at least have a little respect for the fact that they stood up and told the truth as they saw it. After all, I have respect for people who stand up and say, “You know what? I think the founding fathers had no idea that someday there would be AK-47s, and when it comes to gun control, I think we need to deviate from the road map now that these things exist.”

But what I don’t have any respect for, and what I find quite terrifying, is people who stand up and say, “Our founding fathers believed that only Christian, English-speaking Americans should be educated, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an amoral, godless liberal who is launching an assault on America.”

Oh, I guess it’s not really terrifying that they stand up and say it. That’s common sense–if you want people to agree with you, throw around words like “founding fathers” and “morality” and “God.” What’s terrifying is that so many people buy it.

In fact, they buy it so much that the Texas GOP has now literally ratified, as their 2012 platform, their support for removing critical thinking from the curriculum. Here’s their actual language:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

They also believe that “the current multicultural curriculum is divisive” and they “support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.” They also want to make it illegal for non-citizens to go to school.

In other words, if you aren’t a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated. Even if you are a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated–unless “education” means “being told things you already know and believe.”

They’ve since come out and claimed that they opposed “the teaching of critical thinking skills” by accident, but I don’t buy it. Why? Because critical thinking is by definition the “challenging of fixed beliefs.” In the sense that teaching a child to think for himself–which is to say, teaching a child–means teaching him not to believe everything he’s told by an authority figure, yes, education undermines parental authority. Yes it does. It also undermines the authority of the church, the authority of the government, and the authority of the teacher.

Because when child learns to think for himself, he learns not to believe everything he’s told. She learns not to believe everything she reads. In order to learn this, she has to learn to question her elders–not overthrow them, not disobey them, but question them.

And if you think the founding fathers would have been against this, you should really read up on your history.

In case you don’t want to take my word for all of this, here are some links:

Texas 2012 GOP Platform

Washington Post Article/Blog

Huffington Post


Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

I made mistakes that still keep me up at night. But I also built a classroom library. Isn’t it beautiful? I dismissed it at the time because it was easy and fun. Now I realize how cool it is.

I have a teensy, weensy bit of bad news for you: This year is probably going to suck. You’re going to work very, very hard, lose sleep, care so much, and still be convinced that a potted plant would teach them more than you can.

Here is a short list of the mistakes you will almost certainly make:

-Forget to make copies of an assignment in time to give it to students before the due date. Or forget the assignment entirely.
-Answer a student question TOTALLY incorrectly, and be corrected by a student in front of the class.
-Lose important papers.
-Give a student the benefit of the doubt even though you KNOW she is lying.
-Choose the wrong moment to be a hard ass.
-Write a bad test.
-Confuse your students and then yourself.
-Plan WAY too little for one day, and spend a very uncomfortable 20 minutes waiting for the bell to ring.

You’ll do lots of great things, too, but you’ll dismiss those things, or fail to realize how great they are. You’ll be wearing goggles that allow you only to see your shortcomings, and there will be many of those.

The good news is that the first year ends. You will learn from it. You’ll start your second year with a much better sense of self, and you’ll be much less worried about things like whether or not you’ve got chalk on your butt. You’ll stop feeling like an imposter. You’ll let fewer things slide, and have more days that go smoothly. More and more, you’ll feel that you don’t have enough time to teach them everything you want to teach them. The period will end and you will think, “Wow, that went fast.”

You’ll reach someone. You’ll take things less personally. You’ll work hard, but more efficiently, and you’ll enjoy the work more.

By your third year (and I know that sounds like it’s a million, billion years from now, but it’s not. It’ll be here so fast it’ll make your head spin), you’ll have a few lesson plans you love. You’ll have moments you feel proud of, and students whose lives you’ve improved, if only by a small margin. You’ll be more pragmatic about the students who’ve slipped through your grasp, and, while you’ll keep stretching yourself to reach those difficult students, you’ll recognize that they do have to meet you halfway, and that you can’t force them. You’ll know when you’re being lied to, and feel more confident about how to deal with it. You’ll be a hard ass when you need to be, and you’ll be forgiving when you can. You’ll begin to know what kind of teacher you are. By now, you’ll have a reputation among the students. Don’t worry–they’re quite perceptive. If you’ve been working hard, and if you like them, and if you are passionate about your subject, you’ll have a good reputation. That reputation will help you. Students will conform to you more quickly, and test your boundaries less often.

You’ll suddenly realize that you haven’t worried about whether or not your butt was covered in chalk for weeks. When a student asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, you’ll simply say, “I don’t know,” and then you’ll find out.

You’ll ask the class a question, and be comfortable letting the silence stretch for longer than 5 seconds.

You won’t be scared of your students anymore.

You won’t hate Sunday nights anymore.

You’ll love summer, but you’ll also look forward to September, because a fresh slate is now more exciting than it is terrifying.

You will remember that first class, and you’ll remember the students who were sacrificed on the altar of your first year. You’ll remember the student whose face fell when you made an ill-timed and overly harsh joke. You’ll remember the student who showed signs of needing real help, the one who might’ve had an eating disorder or whose parents might have been neglecting him. You’ll wish you’d gone to the counselors, and you’ll wonder how that student is doing now.

And you’ll remember that student when one of your new ones comes to you with a problem. You’ll stay on top of that problem. You’ll follow up. No matter the outcome, you’ll know that you took action.

You’ll be organized, and aware, and you’ll love your job.

Because nothing worth having is easy to get, and being a good teacher is very, very worth all the pain it takes to get there.

Good luck, New Teacher. You’re gonna need it!



You think you understand language. Then you have a kid.

Red Eye

She freaks when I say “eyes peeled,” but is perfectly comfortable putting THIS in the world.

When she was 2-and-a-half, I told E to “keep her eyes peeled.” She responded by bursting into tears. It seems she didn’t want to peel her eyes.

These days, she understands figurative language a bit better. At four, she can already tell when G is being sarcastic. He’ll say, “Honey, please ask me ‘why’ a few more times. I haven’t heard it enough yet today.”

She’ll respond by squinting up at him and saying, “Daddy, is that a joke?”

Unfortunately, now that she’s figured out that things don’t always mean exactly what they seem to mean, she’s got a lot of questions. Especially about music. Music that I used to enjoy.

“Mommy, how did her heart break?”
“Mommy, did he really lose his head?”
“Mommy, what’s a virgin?”

OK, I made that last one up. I am cagey enough to avoid Madonna. Though, that might only be due to the fact that my mom was cornered into telling us about sex when my sister and I started singing “Papa Don’t Preach” in places like the grocery store and the school playground.

The two land mines that are the most embarrassing are also currently the most common:

1. When she asks me what a word means–a word that I’ve just used–and I don’t know.

Examples include irony, death, attitude, money, country, electricity, and year.

It’s not actually that I don’t know what these words mean. (With the exception of “electricity,” I do.) It’s that I have absolutely no idea how to explain them to her in a way she finds satisfactory. She’s relentless. If I can’t provide her with an easy-to-read pictographic flow chart of the exact definition and its etymology, and do so using only words that are already in her vocabulary, she’s never. done. asking. questions.

You try explaining what a year is to a person who has no concept of “yesterday” or “one minute.”

“A year is… a long time.”
“How long?”
“Longer than a week.”
“What’s a week?”
“It’s… wait. Let me back up. You remember Christmas, right?”
“And you remember that it was a long time ago?”
“Well, that was about six months ago. So that’s half a year. Christmas was half a year ago, so in another half a year, it will be Christmas again.”
“What’s ‘half?'”

2. When she asks me why I just said something, and I don’t even remember saying it, let alone have an answer for why I said it or what I could possibly have meant by it.

It’s not that I don’t want to listen to her. I do. But she never, ever stops talking. Not unless she’s eating or sleeping. And sometimes not even then. So sometimes–for instance, when we’re barreling down the interstate in bumper-to-bumper 80 mph Jersey traffic–I listen with half an ear.

“Mommy, I think I have a booboo on my finger. I need a band-aid.”
“OK, honey. I’ll get you one in a minute.”
“You will?”
“I will what?”
“Get me one in a minute?”
“Get you a what, honey?”
“A band-aid.”
“I don’t have any band-aids.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“Say what?”
“That you would get me a band-aid in a minute.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Oh. Umm…”

They say the teen years are worse, but I find it hard to believe that anything could be more exhausting than an illiterate, clever four-year-old.

What do you think?