Rethinking an Old Paradigm

Conclusions drawn in Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary written and directed by Greg Whiteley and produced by TEDTalks founder Ted Dintersmith, won’t surprise students or the people paid to teach them. The model we use for the school day comes from nineteenth-century Germany, where schools turned education into something like an assembly line: English in one room, history in another, chemistry here, and biology down there. Such distinctions can be useful. They can also be arbitrary. 

However, that’s old news. The more challenging conclusion drawn by the film is that we need to rethink the way we assess student progress. The last half of the film focuses on the idea because the 21st-century workplace depends on people working together in teams, education should assess the way students contribute to projects together rather than depending on quizzes, exams, and standardized tests where students work alone.

Consider examining those ideas below. Does the 21st-century workplace depend on teamwork? What happens to the way we grade when we focus on the results of group work rather than individuals? How might this improve some aspects of education? What could get lost if we adopted it?

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

ICE Raids in Mississippi

“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says” Lou Reed, Dirty Boulevard

Earlier this week, as most Mississippi families found themselves consumed by the excitement and anxiety of going back to school, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers went to poultry processing plants in central Mississippi and detained 680 workers whose documentation seemed questionable. Almost half were released within twenty-four hours. The rest remain in facilities while the law reckons with the balance between its own needs and basic human dignity.

We are all complicit in their misery. We like cheap protein, and we like it when we can buy blueberries for less than $2.50 a pint because they were picked by (probably undocumented) immigrants. The owners of food processing facilities and farms like maximizing profit. It’s the perfect marriage of capitalistic greed and need, and has been since the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of immigration law. However, I am certain that if the American Dream has any cultural currency on the international level, it must incorporate the notion that our nation allows all people to advance in the direction of their dreams–that the acceptance of certain core values is more important than birthplace, religion, or ethnicity. Unless we no longer want to be known as a nation of immigrants, we should welcome those who will embrace those core values, regardless of color or creed. Free those nascent Mississippians. Help them earn the right to be American citizens.

Some may claim that this is tantamount to opening our borders, or that it advocates lawlessness. That’s certainly the position of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who’s currently engaged in a Twitter spat with Rep. Ilhan Omar. However, aside from being undocumented, it appears that the people detained in Mississippi lived within the realm of the law. They worked hard, went to church, paid taxes, and sent their kids to school so their lives would be better. What’s more American than that?

I’ll close with the last lines of “The New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus poem that’s inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Posted in National Politics, Race in Mississippi | 4 Comments

Welcome Back

Good morning, Blue Waves! I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer. If you’re new to the blog, allow me to introduce a few ground rules. First, to post, you must have a valid MSMS email address. I’ll approve your first entry, and after that you’ll be able to post as often as you like. You can earn up to one-third the total number of quiz points per quarter if you blog.

I try to find current issues that are of interest to students to discuss in the blog. I like invigorating discussions rather than sterile bloviation. However, I insist that you disagree civilly when you disagree. Be mindful of language also. Only MSMS students can post here, but anyone in the world can read what you write.

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Last Chance

It’s too late to post anything for credit–that deadline passed Wednesday–but I am in the process of revising next fall’s Contemporary American Literature course. I’m likely to replace Salvage the Bones with Sing, Unburied, Sing, but additional suggestions are welcome!

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Fighting for Himself

In Larry Brown’s brilliant novel Dirty Work, the protagonist, Walter James, shares a dozen anecdotes that reveal the violence from his past. The bloodshed starts early. As a first grader, he gets his nose smacked and his grape Nehi stolen by the class bully. Walter doesn’t fight back. He goes home to his mother seeking sympathy. Instead, she tells him this:

If you don’t take up for yourself in this world, there ain’t nobody else that will. If you let him run over you once, he’s gonna run over you again. The next time he sees you, he’s gonna run over you again. Cause now he knows he can. So you got to teach him right now he can’t. Either now or the next time, it don’t matter. Is he bigger than you?. . .Well, I guess you gonna have to just pick you up a stick, ain’t you?

Mississippi parents still tell their kids things like this all the time. “You better not start a fight at school, but if somebody starts a fight with you, I expect you to finish it.” We tend not to want our children to have to rely on systems we don’t entirely trust to protect themselves. (Whether this is a stronger indictment of education or the law is hard to tell.)

While discussing this passage in class, students expressed varying levels of tolerance for bullying. Some students agreed absolutely with the mother. In light of yesterday’s school shooting in Colorado, it seems easy to wish for playground fights rather than active shooter emergencies. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy borne of nostalgia. The broader issue seems to be this: in a society that’s saturated with violence, how do we encourage children to stand up for themselves?

Posted in Education, Politics | 9 Comments

What’s Fair is Fair?

I’ve been interested in and amused by plans that Democratic presidential candidates have been floating for making a college education more affordable. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan involves offering all those who currently hold student loans $50,000 of amnesty. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, which some conservatives find scary. My objection to the plan lies in the belief that it would cause eventual (and massive) increases in the cost of obtaining a higher education. When colleges find out that students will be able to borrow an additional $50k, do you expect them to freeze tuition and other costs? If so, I’ve got a bridge in Tibbee to sell you.

However, a more conservative qualm to Warren’s plan involves fairness. As Dan Meagan puts it in theatlantic.com, cultural conservatives have a fundamental problem with the way that it penalizes people who do things the proper way:

Consider a hypothetical comparison of two people who graduated from college five years ago with equal amounts of debt. Jessie successfully implemented a plan to pay off the debt in five years, while Sam still has much to repay. Warren’s plan forgives Sam’s debt, but offers nothing to Jessie, despite her industriousness and self-discipline. To add insult to injury, Jessie must contribute tax dollars to the $640 billion fund necessary to forgive outstanding loans, including Sam’s.

In this example, Jessie would rightfully feel put upon. More broadly speaking, conservatives have an understanding of what fair that relies on proportionality. If you put something into a system, you have the right to expect something out of it. This is the way Social Security and Medicare work. People perceive that it’s fair.

So, here’s the challenge: how can you have a plan that eases student debts but appeals to a sense of fairness that many people share?

Posted in Education, Politics | Tagged | 16 Comments

It’s That Time of Year Again

Graduation lurks one calendar month away. There’s so much I’d like to discuss–the Mueller Report, the Mississippi State Auditor’s assessment of how we spend too much money on administrative expenses, the brain drain and Mississippi–but I’m going for the low-hanging fruit first: seniors, please tell the juniors something you wish you knew twelve months ago. On the flip side, juniors, feel free to ask for advice on surviving and thriving your last year at MSMS.

Posted in Education | 22 Comments

Sanity and Cs

I have a confession: I was a good test taker and a terrible student. As late as my second year of college, if the weather pleased me, or if some event drew my attention, I would cut class and do what mattered to me.

I made a few Cs as a result.

But I also managed to retain sanity throughout the most stressful moments of my education. I focused on the classes that interested me most, figured out how to make grades I could live with in the others, and proceeded from there. Part of me does not want my students to follow such a pattern. Part of me does, and here’s why: instead of knowing what interests them, I see way too many students fool themselves into believing that making As is what interests them. An A can be a wonderful achievement. However, it seems a hollow one when it isn’t tethered to a larger goal.

Be deliberate. “Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.” “Be bold, but not too bold.” Be more than your grades and your standardized test scores.

Posted in Education | 29 Comments

Pennywise and Pound Foolish

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently presented a budget to Congress that would eliminate funding for Special Olympics. “We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” she told legislators recently. She added that the success of the Special Olympics program should enable it to make up for the $17.6 million cut through its own fundraising.

The cut saves taxpayers approximately the same amount as five presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago. DeVos and the administration she represents drew a conclusion remarkably out of touch with the realities of most Americans, particularly those who support children with special needs. Having said that, I do not envy the policy makers who have to decide how to fund education. The economy is a twisted zero-sum game. Want to spend more money on university-level research programs? Great! Shall we take cash from elementary reading programs to provide it? Well. . .hang on a minute.

Of course, the government’s biggest mathematical problem involves figuring out ways to pay for entitlement programs. It’s not like we can tell retired septuagenarians that the checks won’t be coming any more. This administration’s specific problem involves its funding priorities. If you ran the government, how would you balance spending on defense, health, and education?

Posted in Education, National Politics | 20 Comments

A Quick Reminder; Callout Culture

As tempting as it may be to blog during class, I consider it bad form. Also, unless you’re highly proficient at multi-tasking, you’re not really getting the material being covered while you blog.

On to another topic: callout culture, which is the practice of publicly denouncing the biases of others. Chelsea Clinton recently attended a vigil in New York for the victims of the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. On her way there, students from a local university accosted her for being contributing to islamophobia. Her crime? Expressing support for a congressional resolution against anti-Semitism.

The logic of Clinton’s detractors is a thin potation of name calling and conspiracy theory logic. It points to a broader, identity-based cultural issue: the inclination to “shame” people for having opinions that differ from our own. I see it as something that cuts against the grain of our nation’s great experiment in democracy, which largely involves listening to a broad plurality of voices to find the great middle way that does the greatest good for the greatest number.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments