Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I Was Accused of Teacher Malpractice

I had a very jarring experience this week. After a lesson in my creative writing class on Wednesday that was not significantly different from one I've given dozens of times before, two students confronted me after class and accused me of a professional ethics violation, specifically of using my position as a teacher to share my political views. When pressed, they conceded that the views were not actually necessarily mine, and may have been balanced, but that the lesson involved politics and was therefore inappropriate. That's simply a misunderstanding of the nature of the violation they'd originally accused me of, but that didn't stop me from freaking out. I could imagine angry parents confronting me, or worse, going over my head and blind-siding my principal or superintendent with allegations of professional misconduct which could have severe repercussions. Outside of my classroom and the contract day I am quite politically active (as anyone who has read this blog before can infer), so I could imagine that someone, not knowing the lengths I go to in order to keep my views out of the classroom, might believe that I crossed that barrier I work so hard to maintain. I immediately shot off an email to my principal, both to document the incident and to warn her in case she was confronted by parents. Then I spent the evening allowing myself to get more and more worried about the situation. By midnight, it seemed sleep would be impossible, so I came downstairs and drafted a letter to my students explaining the situation. I still couldn't fall asleep until after 3:00 am. The next day, Thursday, I brought the letter to my principal and spoke with her about the situation. She was very supportive and encouraging, which made me feel a lot better. She read the letter, encouraged me to tone it down a notch, and advised me to send a kind of permission slip about the lesson home to parents next year in advance (good advice which I will follow). I read an abbreviated version of the letter to the students, and it seems the incident has blown over, though I can't be sure it won't explode at some point in the future. I wanted to share the letter here so other teachers, parents, friends, etc., could understand both my rebuttal and why I was so panicked. I apologize in advance for the length, but, as you can imagine, I had a lot to get off my chest.

"Well, my dear creative writing students, it’s 12:17 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Today (technically yesterday) I made an error in judgment and I want to apologize and explain something. So (cue trumpets), with much fanfare, please accept…

An Apology and Explanation

Yesterday, before beginning the reading of the 3rd chapter of the novel I’m writing, I meant to remember to say, albeit briefly, that there would be some references to things that are political in the text, but that the character’s views were not my own, and that if the prospect of hearing about anything political made anyone uncomfortable, they could be excused from the assignment. Once I’d passed out the copies I simply forgot.

After class, some of your classmates came to me, concerned that I was trying to share my own political beliefs. I must immediately say that I firmly prohibit any kind of witch-hunt to try to figure out who these students were. I appreciated their honesty and I think their concern is valid. Please allow me to try to explain why I also believe it is misplaced in this instance.

First of all, there’s a general misconception that teachers can’t talk about anything political. This is, on its face, not only incorrect but impossible. We couldn’t do our jobs if we avoided any topic which relates to politics. Every novel we teach is political. All the history we teach inevitably has political bias. In fact, in recent history even science has been politicized. One could argue that everything you read in school is biased toward English-speakers by virtue of being written in English, or biased toward Americans because of the way words like “color” and “theater” are spelled. The complete absence of bias is a myth, and fleeing from politics is not our job. However, we have an ethical obligation to avoid using our positions as your teachers to try to inculcate you into our own political beliefs. I take this very seriously. I do not tell students how I vote or how they should feel about specific issues, and I encourage all of you to let me know if you believe I’ve been intentionally or accidentally biased in my presentation of any information.

That being said, the explanation given by the novel’s character for the fall of our civilization could be easily misconstrued to reflect my beliefs. I can only ask you to trust me when I say his politics do not mirror my own. I understand that skeptical students would wonder why they should believe that and not feel they were being doubly deceived. If you’ll allow me, let me provide one uncontroversial piece of evidence. The character in the story expresses a fatalism about the fall of our civilization. Of course, he is speaking from a different, fictional setting in which this has already occurred. I think I can safely share that I do not believe this to be any kind of inevitability, or that the fictional story is some kind of prophecy. I am a teacher. This is an inherently hopeful profession. I would not do this job if I believed that we are all doomed. If you can accept that I differ from the character in this way, I hope you will also believe me when I say that we differ in other beliefs as well. I cannot, however, itemize all the ways I agree and disagree with the character because, to do so, I would have to expound on my own politics, which would be inappropriate.

So why, you might ask, if the assignment creates a situation wherein students can only trust that their teacher isn’t preaching his own politics, would I continue to offer up the assignment? I believe its value exceeds the risk. As developing writers, there is a value to the practice of editing and revision that can only come with repetition. You will be editing and revising one another’s work. I feel it’s important to lay the groundwork for that by modeling the proper way to receive feedback. On a deeper level, I think it’s essential for students to see that I, too, am involved in the practice of writing. Across this country there are hosts of English teachers asking students to write while not participating in the endeavor themselves. Maybe it’s not a hobby they enjoy. Maybe their work demands so much time they simply cannot fit it into their schedules. I shouldn’t judge them. But I know that, as a student, I would question the authority of any writing instructor who didn’t write, just as I would question a literature instructor who didn’t read literature or a P.E. teacher who refused to exercise.

But, you might ask, couldn’t I have chosen to tell a story that was clearly apolitical? I would argue, quite simply, no, I couldn’t. I could have told a story set in a fantasy world completely dissimilar to our own with characters barely resembling human beings, or perhaps with anthropomorphized animals, and the politics within the story might have been a lot more subtle. That subtlety might have protected me from any accusations of impropriety. But I would argue that is actually a far more dangerous situation. As with advertising or any other form of manipulation, it’s when we are least suspecting of bias or ulterior motive that we are most susceptible. For the reasons mentioned above, I chose to share the book I really am writing. But I also went out of my way to try to make sure that the politics were as even-handed as I could make them and still explain the extreme setting of the story. Hence the explanation that both sides’ worst fear came true simultaneously. Frankly, if this book were ever to be published with my name on it, I might edit that portion to more accurately reflect my politics, but I felt that would be inappropriate for a classroom. It’s true that balance isn’t the same thing as a lack of bias, but I’d again ask you to believe me when I say I chose balance to try to present a believable dystopia without injecting the class with my own politics.

So, if I made any of you uncomfortable yesterday, I apologize for not giving you an out in advance. That was my oversight. And now for the announcement part (trumpets again, please): In our following unit we were going to begin a careful examination of some literature written by some writers who are far more talented than I could ever hope to be (well, I can hope, I guess. Teacher, remember). We’re now going to move that assignment up. This will not mean any extra work for anyone. It just shifts our schedule around a bit. The reason I’m doing this is that I plan on continuing to share from the novel I’m writing, as long as the majority of you are still interested in reading it. Those of you who are not comfortable reading my writing may choose to do the same assignment, providing detailed feedback chapter by chapter, to the works of established authors from the books I’ve chosen. If you want to escape all writers’ politics, I’m afraid you’re out of luck in a creative writing class. If you don’t feel comfortable hearing a story from your teacher because of his immediate presence in the room and necessarily conflicting roles as writer and teacher, I can only hope that I am modeling accepting that feedback by not demanding that you continue to read my work, and by modeling not being offended by that choice in the slightest.

One last note: The reason it is unethical for public school teachers to share their personal political views is not because we are paid with taxpayer money. If any of you attend a public university next year you will hear lectures from professors who are also paid with public funds and who do not shy away from sharing their personal views. The reason it is unethical for teacher like me to do that is because young minds are more malleable and more likely to be swayed by authority figures. So let me say something that I don’t believe is controversial at all: You cannot hide from politics any more than you can hide from questions of religion or identity or tastes in food or people’s opinions about next week’s weather. Your best and only defense is in greeting all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether those opinions come from your teachers or your friends or your television, I encourage you to listen or read very carefully the opinions of anyone, alive or dead, authority figure or peer, and then decide for yourselves. I admit that the notion that you should think for yourselves is my personal political belief, but I refuse to accept that this belief is too controversial, because if it is, then I’m afraid all education is impossible.

Okay, now it’s 1:31 in the morning and I will be seeing you all painfully soon. Please accept my apology for the oversight and let me know privately if you would prefer the alternate assignment."

I hope this will put an end to the whole affair. Ultimately (and ironically), I expect that will be determined by workplace, local, family, and parental politics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alan Grayson for President

I've been thoroughly enjoying the letters Alan Grayson sends me asking for my support in his congressional campaign. If I had money (right after I gave a ton to my Mom's team for the Walk to End Alzheimer's) I'd toss some his way. I don't think Grayson would be a good presidential candidate. He's got too many knocks against him. He's funny. He speaks his mind even when his views aren't popular. He's transparently partisan, and in the wrong party for that to be a good thing. Still, he's exactly what the Democratic party needs, and what any country needs from the opposition party in one of its legislative bodies.

I'm not 100% positive if I'm violating any kind of copyright by republishing Grayson's most recent letter to me, but I figure, heck, it was addressed to me, so it's mine to do with as I please, right? So I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!

Dear Benjamin:

If you have been hearing the term “job creators” a lot lately, it’s because Frank Luntz wanted you to.

As PBS put it, Luntz’s expertise is “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their products, or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.” In other words, propaganda.

Here are some actual examples of Luntz’s fine work:

Don’t say “oil drilling.” Say “energy exploration.”

Don’t say “inheritance tax.” Say “death tax.”

Don’t say “global warming.” Say “climate change.”

Don’t say “healthcare reform.” Say “government takeover.”

And don’t say “greedy, soulless multinational corporations who don’t give a damn about you.” Say “job creators.”

Luntz is like a serial killer of the English language.

We are not Luntz-puppets. Support our campaign, because we are not fooled by Luntz word games.

As soon as I heard the term “job creators,” I said to myself, “that sounds like Frank Luntz talking.” And sure enough, it’s right in there in Frank Luntz’s latest book, Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary. Here are Luntz’s exact words: “You don’t create jobs by making life difficult for job creators.” That’s under the heading “The Ten Rules for 2012: What Americans Really Want to Hear from Their Representatives.”

Here is Luntz’s list of what we all “really” want to hear in 2012:

I will never accept the status quo.
I will never apologize for America.
I will find at least one penny of waste to cut from every dollar of spending.
I will never raise taxes in a recession.
You don’t work for me. I work for you.
I will fight for the public’s right to know the cost and consequences of every piece of legislation and regulation.
I will always prioritize American rights over the rights of those who wish to do us harm.
I will work with anyone who will work with me.
I will always support freedom.
I still believe in the American principle: of the people, by the people, for the people.

Note the absence of anything even resembling a policy, a program, or a solution to anyone’s problems. So, for instance, the Luntzified Republican Party’s health care plan really is, “don’t get sick.”

If you are sick and tired of government by cliché, you’re not the only one. Contribute to our campaign, and send Frank Luntz a message – in plain English.

And leaving Ron Paul aside, doesn’t that Luntz list sound like every single Republican candidate for President? And almost every Republican Governor? And almost every Republican Senator? And, of course, Sarah Palin?

Which suggests this startling possibility: If they all read Luntz’s book, then they all know how to read.

But that’s all they ever need to do. It must be so easy to be a Republican elected official. You never have to think at all. You just let Frank Luntz do all your thinking for you.

I look forward to the day when Frank Luntz prescribes a haircut. Then they’ll all have the same haircut.

I wish that, just once, Frank Luntz would goof on them, and tell them that what Americans really want to see in their representatives is a little, tiny moustache, just covering the upper lip, like, like . . .

Like Charlie Chaplin. You know, like in the movie “The Great Dictator.” Whom did you think I was going to say?

Here are some more Luntzisms that I just made up:

Vampires are “blood recyclers.”

Space aliens are the “differently specied.”

Plagues are “immune system strengtheners.”

Cancer is “internal genetic diversity.”

Death is “spiritual-corporeal differentiation.”

And nuclear war is “1000 points of light.”

But here’s the really sad thing about Luntz’s propaganda. Like most propaganda, it’s just not true.

FACT: In the last ten years, the population of the United States has grown by 27 million people.

FACT: There are one million fewer private sector jobs in America today than there were ten years ago.

So much for job creation. In fact, judging by employment, if the private sector were an employee, we’d have to fire him. For incompetence.

But you can count on 2012 Republican candidates all over the country repeating ad nauseam “jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators jobcreators.”

As far as they’re concerned, it’s Frank Luntz’s world. We just live in it.

Jobs. Health. Peace. That’s the real world, not Frank Luntz’s fantasy world. Make a difference; support our campaign today.


Alan Grayson

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Best Piece on the GOP I've Ever Read

I've been caught in a number of online debates recently trying, and failing, to express my frustration with the modern Republican Party. I tend to get three different kinds of responses. On says that I'm painting the whole GOP with too broad a brush, and that, even within the elected leadership, there's a lot more variation than I can appreciate as an outsider. The second says that, no matter how hard I try to be even handed, every attempt I make to describe the ideology and political strategy of the Republicans inaccurately casts them as calculating, nefarious, and cynical. The third rebuttal swallows every criticism I make and replies with an example of Democratic incompetence, cronyism, or political hypocrisy.

Then I came across this. It's written by a man who worked as a congressional staffer for GOP representatives for 28 years. His thesis; it is a concerted political strategy, it is nefarious and cynical, and the GOP is worse than the Dems. I know this piece is long, but please, take the time to read it and consider the possibility that the writer's experience might give him the authority to talk about this in a way that no other politician, pundit, or that whiny bald blogger ever could.

Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult

by: Mike Lofgren

Barbara Stanwyck: "We're both rotten!"

Fred MacMurray: "Yeah - only you're a little more rotten." -"Double Indemnity" (1944)

"Those lines of dialogue from a classic film noir sum up the state of the two political parties in contemporary America. Both parties are rotten - how could they not be, given the complete infestation of the political system by corporate money on a scale that now requires a presidential candidate to raise upwards of a billion dollars to be competitive in the general election? Both parties are captives to corporate loot. The main reason the Democrats' health care bill will be a budget buster once it fully phases in is the Democrats' rank capitulation to corporate interests - no single-payer system, in order to mollify the insurers; and no negotiation of drug prices, a craven surrender to Big Pharma.

"But both parties are not rotten in quite the same way. The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP..." (Please continue here)