Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Much Needed Red Ink

The most telling sign of OWS's reach and potential came, for me, last weekend. At a reunion comprised of mostly conservative military and former military servicemembers, no one mocked it. When one person did bring it up, it was to share a recent development in the story. Others responded by sharing their knowledge of other recent developments, but their comments were equally devoid of tone, not a trace of irony or disdain. It seemed to me that no one felt comfortable throwing out a jab, lest someone in the group felt strongly about the movement.

In recent months, only a handful of friends have asked my feelings on OWS, and they've each done so with the same kind of cautious inquiry, careful not to reveal their own feelings on the movement upfront. I'm willing to guess that I'm not the only one who has observed this kind of discreet ambivalence in discussions about the protests, which is fairly remarkable in our South Park/Family Guy/Jon Stewart era in which few cultural developments garner enough of an aura to remain off the table of derision or commendation, a sign that OWS has much more potential than perhaps we realize just yet. If it were meaningless to people, they would throw out opinions on it right and left. Instead, it seems that they're waiting to make a judgment, watching it closely and considering it very seriously.

Slovenian scholar Slavoj Zizek spoke to the OWS crowd in early October, and his comments shed some light on perhaps why such a radical movement has attracted widespread attention/consideration (even support?) from the "mainstream" and thus become a topic that requires such discretion in discussion. He can explain it better than I, so see below:

"...They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare...We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, 'Hey, look down!'

...So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: 'Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.' After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: 'Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.' This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink."

Even in the midst of the housing boom, even as our portfolios grew and our homes gained equity, I think we all had a niggling sense of the wrongness, or, at the very least, the fleeting nature, of the whole thing. But most of us have felt flummoxed, for some time now, by the mathematics of trickle down economics and corporate tax rates and rising deficits, but we also knew, just as the cat did in the cartoon, that the precipice was rapidly disappearing even as we ignored that fact. OWS has shored up its support by articulating that amorphous feeling of uncertainty that most of us have felt for while. It's given us the red ink.

But what makes it different from all the other players at the political economics table is that unlike just about every other political organization out there, it hasn't told us to reject one thing in favor of another. It hasn't made promises or shown us complicated formulas or complex economic theories. By not making any demands or pushing forth any kind of structured leadership, it hasn't given us a plan or a theory or an equation for success. In short, it hasn't told us to think logically. Instead, it's asked us to think with our guts. OWS has allowed us to validate that sense of uneasiness that pervaded us even in the good times, that sense that, somehow, our good fortune couldn't last because it was just that: good fortune. Not any kind of calculated effect of any economic policy. A kind of "there but for the grace of God go I." The OWS movement is the red ink that, hopefully, we can use to start to write a new plan - or, more likely, new plans - that take into account all the math and all economic theories but that are driven by a sense of balance and moderation that comes from the moral gut of our country.

But I don't know that that's the role of OWS. I think that's our role, the public's role. It's our turn to get involved, and I don't necessarily mean by camping in Zucotti Park. We all need to do what we can reasonably do. Some people's role will be camping out and protesting and running classes and raising awareness, but I know that that isn't my role. I can't camp out in the park, much as I admire those who do - not only because I have a job that I can't afford to lose but also because it's just too damn cold for me! But I like to think that I can be involved. I like to think that I can read and research and write and take political action in the coming months and years. I want to believe that I'll think and theorize and act and collaborate with others in other ways. Of course, this kind of selective involvement always runs the risk of thinking too small and enabling complacency or, worse, self-satisfaction.

In his speech, Zizek commended the protesters for bringing the world's attention to the problem of economic inequity perpetuated by the capitalist system, and he encouraged the protesters to be careful not to become complacent in their fight. He told protesters, "[T]he reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good."

I think part of the problem is that many of us "progressives" live exactly that kind of goodwill-here-and-there life. We DO think that we're doing our part my buying a few local veggies at the farmer's market, wearing TOMS shoes, growing a tomato plant or two on our back decks, buying  from local merchants. We've been told that every little bit helps, and so we've been pretty content to do just a little bit, here and there, when we can. I am certainly guilty of that kind of convenient participation. Of course, if we want to move forward with a truly different economic system, we'll need to reach beyond our own homes, beyond our own communities, perhaps. And that's the challenge.

Zizek finished his speech by noting the irony in the fact that, at this point in history, we can more easily imagine the end of the universe than the end of capitalism. He says, "In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." Isn't that something?

At the very least, I think the OWS movement has the power to make us question the capitalist system that we've all been raised to imagine as the only way. At most, it has the power to help us rewrite it. It's provided an invitation to our imaginations to think about alternatives. Of course, I think the reason that we're all so keen to see a list of demands or candidates come out of Zucotti Park is that we're not really sure what to do next - our economic imaginations are pretty rusty after all this time. But perhaps that red ink will prove useful in the coming months as we try to draft an idea.

*The full text of Zizek's speech can be found at the following link: Impose Magazine

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I am...

The following piece came out of a project we've been working on at my school, called "We Are Chatham." This particular project aimed to demonstrate that our strength as a community is in our diversity, so we asked students, teachers, and administrators to write "I Am" statements. We asked that they write about aspects of their identities that the average person might not know. Mine is below, and you can check out the incredible responses from our school community at the following site:

We Are Chatham

I am a blogger. Although I’ve been blogging for years, I still feel a little strange saying that sentence out loud. To call myself “a blogger” suggests that I write posts everyday or at least with some degree of regularity. I don’t. It suggests that I have a wide audience that reads what I write. I don’t. And yet, here I am, a blogger nonetheless. I post when I can, and my readers are mainly close friends and family members, but I believe that being a writer isn’t necessarily about publishing and audience; I believe that it’s mostly about the individual tapping away at the keys.

Being a blogger has made me a more observant watcher of my world. I carry around a small pink notebook in my purse at all times. In its tattered pages (some of which are smeared with the remains of a leaky lip gloss), I write down what I notice. I never write down big things; I mostly write down snippets of conversations that sound interesting or particularly moving images that I see. For example, just last week, I wrote this down: “My neighbor was sitting out on his stoop in the rain wearing his crossing guard’s uniform, with its reflective yellow vest. An older woman turned the corner and took shelter under the tree next to his stoop. She looked up at him and said, ‘Don’t know why I’m hiding from a little rain. My mother used to say, ‘You’re sweet, but you won’t melt.’ The man laughed and told her a reciprocate story, ‘My grandmother used to say that getting caught in the rain was God washing your sins away.’”

I suppose I wrote down this scene because I liked that it reminded me that the people who are secondary characters in my life, like the crossing guard I see each afternoon, actually have whole separate lives in which they are the stars, and I am only a part of the chorus dancing behind them. I also wrote it down because the day before I had told my students that my own mother used to tell me that thunder was just the angels bowling. And that’s how a blog post develops. It starts with a little thing, which, because I’ve taken the time to notice it, makes me notice another similar little thing. Before you know it, I’ve got an idea for a post because I just learned another little something about the world.

Writing helps me to sort through the complexity that is life, and it helps me to give order and sense and meaning to my life and to the lives others live around me. Sometimes these odds and ends I record develop into a blog post. More often, they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get something out of recording the simple dailyness of life. After all, I don’t think that many people have major revelations in which they suddenly understand the meaning of life; I think that most of us accumulate big understandings through a collection of small, seemingly insignificant, maybe even momentary, experiences.

If I weren’t a blogger, I probably won’t keep a collection of these small but powerful experiences, and then I just wouldn’t be the same me. Really, I’m a world watcher, and being a blogger is just an excuse to watch a little more closely.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Song for Autumn" by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
     don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
     the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
      freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
      warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
       inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
       the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
       vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
        its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
        the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

-- Mary Oliver

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Preserving National Writing Project

As a teacher, I am required to complete 100 hours of "professional development" each year. For most teachers, this requirement largely consists of spending a lot of time listening to a teaching "expert" (who is likely to be something other than an actual classroom teacher) tell them how to do their jobs more effectively. As you can imagine, most teachers see right through this charade because, as any professional in any line of work knows, what works theoretically doesn't always work in reality. Many teachers feel that professional development time is so ineffective and so practically useless that it should simply be abolished, as I myself did only a few short years ago. 

Enter National Writing Project. NWP is comprised of a network of local sites that work to bring meaningful professional development to teachers -- by having teachers teach other teachers. While this concept may not seem revolutionary to those outside the field of public education, we teachers know that this kind of professional development is actually pretty revolutionary. While most teachers possess Masters degrees and other advanced education credentials, we are still too often seen as well-paid babysitters, and, I would argue, because our field is one that has traditionally been staffed by women, public perception is largely that we need oversight and guidance and regulation to show us the "right" ways to do our jobs. NWP rejects this idea outright and believes, instead, that it is classroom teachers who know what's what. And, perhaps even more impressively, NWP believes in paying teacher-experts for doing the work of sharing their knowledge with their colleagues. To the best of my knowledge, NWP is the only organization that hires full-time teachers to do all of the in-service workshops for which they are contracted, and this difference is what makes them so highly respected among those administrators who are savvy enough to hire them for professional development work in their districts.

Because NWP uses the teachers-teaching-teachers model, the work that NWP does in schools is powerful in a way I can only describe as transformative. I attended the San Diego Area Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute (SI) in 2008, and I am not only a very different teacher, but also a very different person for it. When I entered the SI, I felt like a had some really good ideas as a teacher, but that I didn't quite know how to bring them together into a cohesive approach to teaching that would resonate with my students in ways that were really meaningful. I got feedback from students each year saying that they loved this or that writing assignment or lesson, but I could tell that the work that they did in my class was not something that would move forward with them and serve as a tool for them in future classes. Before the SI, I considered myself someone who could write. Now, after the SI, I call myself a writer. And this is the same experience my students seem to have before and after they take my class. They come in feeling they can write, but they don't see writing as a part of their identity, in spite of the fact that it is a necessity in almost every line of work and they use it every single day (every few minutes if we count texting!) for the purposes of communication and socialization. NWP taught me how to approach writing in my classroom so that students could understand its centrality in their lives and find the motivation to develop it as a skill. Years after I've had students in class, I get emails thanking me for showing them how to love writing and how to do it well.

As NWP plummets off the end of the federal budget's chopping block, I am deeply saddened by the loss of all those would-be incredible writing teachers who will never discover that they can be incredible writing teachers. I'm so sorry for all of the students who will not have the transformative experience of having an NWP teacher. Most of all, though, I'm desperately hoping that our politicians will take the time to consider NWP's record and restore its funding because the research speaks for itself. NWP has proven success in raising student achievement and building better teachers. In the meantime, I will always be an NWP teacher, whether NWP exists in its current form, in a new privately-funded form, or in no formal form at all because what I've learned through NWP is not only a set of teaching practices but a mentality about teaching that has become a part of every lesson I teach. That mentality is one that asserts that all students have knowledge to share, that all students can become better writers if we teach the right skills in clear and effective ways, and that all teachers can learn the skills necessary to be able to teach writing effectively within their disciplines if we invest in their training and provide them with on-going support. I invite our policy-makers and politicians to take an hour out of one of their days and visit an NWP teacher's classroom to see our work in action. I think they'd find what everyone who cares about education is currently searching for: teaching that consistently works for students and an approach that can be applied across grade-levels and academic disciplines to raise student achievement and engagement.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Jersey Rain" by Robert Pinsky

Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.
The source of art and woe aslant in wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.
It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather
To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state-
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads
Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.              

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Support Our Troops (for real): A Missed Opportunity by President Obama

My husband wrote this editorial to raise awareness about the recent changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. If you'd like to sign the petition to establish a "grandfather clause" for veterans currently enrolled in colleges and universities to continue to receive benefits at the rate initially promised, here's the link:

As Americans, we are a patriotic people.  You can drive down any street in America and, more often than not, you will see storefronts and cars decorated with yellow ribbons that state, “Support Our Troops”.  Unfortunately, our government’s current actions don’t reflect the deep commitment that most Americans feel toward their military servicemembers. I listened to President Obama praise our servicemen and women during his State of the Union address last Tuesday night and talk about bringing our troops home, but what happens to the troops once we bring them home?  President Obama did not address this question on Tuesday night, though I assure you that our veterans are waiting for an answer.

I served my country as a junior officer in the United States Navy for 9 years, and I was faced with a tough decision as to whether or not to continue my military career this past July.  Ultimately, I decided to leave the service and take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the single most influential piece of legislation pertaining to educating our servicemen and women since Franklin Roosevelt approved the Montgomery GI Bill in 1944 to allow returning World War II veterans to receive education benefits.  In short, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a renewed and revised version of the original GI Bill, as it provides financial assistance to veterans attending institutions of higher learning.  Each eligible member receives tuition and fees assistance, based on a rate that varies from state to state, as well as a housing allowance and a stipend to purchase books and supplies.  Not every veteran is eligible to receive 100% of the tuition benefits.  Serving 90 days of aggregate service after September 11, 2001 earns a veteran 40% of the tuition benefits while serving a minimum of 36 months allows a veteran to receive the full 100% of the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. This kind of legislation has the potential to change—maybe even save—veterans’ lives as they embark on the difficult task of re-integrating into society after their service commitment ends.

I was extremely proud of our government in its foresighted attempt to provide returning men and women that nobly served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan an opportunity for higher education, which would enable them to make the leap into important positions in American society. Servicemen and women gain an invaluable education during their time in the military.  Nowhere else can you get a master’s level education in responsibility, leadership,adaptability, compassion, and working under extreme pressure.  These brave men and women also bring an experience back to society that has been increasingly undervalued in the re-invigorated, Tea Party-esque American isolationist movement: they have actually set foot outside of the United States and have seen how people in the world live and how they view Americans.  I can tell you from first-hand experience that serving one’s country abroad brings a greater understanding of how important America’s role is to rest of the world.  This understanding, I believe, is an essential one required of tomorrow’s leaders, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides the kind of higher education that would enable returning veterans to transition into leadership roles in business and government after their service and put their unique skills and knowledge to use for the public good. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides a pathway toward that end, but only if we make several important changes.

Currently, the Bill allows servicemembers to receive tuition assistance at a value based on a state-by-state tuition rate.  For example, New York’s tuition assistance rate is $1010 per credit hour while Oklahoma’s rate is $472, as the cost of education and living expenses in New York are significantly higher than they are in Oklahoma. However, Congress has recently drastically changed the Post-9/11 GI Bill after only one year in existence.  I applaud some of the changes that our elected leaders have made.  For example, Congress increased the types of programs covered by the GI Bill.  Previously, only veterans that were physically attending a college or university were eligible for a living allowance; the new change allows veterans enrolled in a distance-learning program to also be eligible for the same housing allowance.  However, legislators overlooked one key issue in “fixing” this legislation.  Congress has now capped tuition assistance to a national flat rate of $17,500 annually.

I am currently in my second semester at Columbia Business School.  This change has effectively reduced my tuition assistance by 50%.  While the drop is a dramatic one, as I made the decision to leave the military counting on a certain amount of benefits, I am fortunate to have a wife with a full-time job and some money in savings.  However, what about the 21-year-old veteran who earned admission to Harvard or Columbia as an undergraduate and is now facing the same problem?  The reduction in tuition assistance could force this young man or woman to have to leave an incredible institution and miss a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It is unconscionable for the federal government to renege on the commitment it made to fund that veteran’s education and hang him or her out to dry.

Too many politicians wave the“veteran” flag to say that they “support the troops” when, in fact, very few of them have ever served this country or have children or spouses who have served time in the military.  In fact, the reality is quite the opposite: many members of Congress were afforded the opportunities to attend the most premier educational institutions this country has to offer without having to worry about where their next tuition payment would come from.  Isn’t it time that we offered those men and women whose boots are on the ground carrying out the policies that Washington enacts the same kinds of advantages that their senators have had?  If a veteran is able to earn admission to a premier private institution, shouldn’t he or she be afforded the opportunity to take advantage of that opportunity?  Perhaps if that were the case, we’d have more veterans running for office and providing this country the benefits of their military experiences as policy-makers with first-hand knowledge of the daunting issues currently facing our legislators.

I urge the ladies and gentlemen of the 112th Congress to make this mistake right.  First, immediately create a “grandfather” clause to allow the veterans already enrolled in school to finish their degrees at the current funding levels to avoid forcing veterans to leave school before the new changes are enacted on August 1, 2011.  Secondly, the tuition assistance amount needs to be readdressed.  We shouldn’t be “capping” our expectations on the types of institutions to which we think these men and women would be able to gain admission.  Setting the national tuition rate at $17,500 effectively limits the range of schools to which a veteran can apply and effectively eliminates top-tier private schools as an option for veterans. (Undergraduate tuition and fees at Harvard, for example, costs in excess of $47,000 a year.)

If the members of Congress really believe in the yellow ribbons and the American flags that they pin on their lapels, now is the time to show it. Symbols are cheap—a concrete pledge to the men and women risking their lives for our security at home is a rich source of investment for our nation’s future.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Je ne sais quoi...

As teachers, we're told early in our careers (and reminded several times each year thereafter) that we are not our students' friends -- we're they're teachers. The implication seems to be that these labels denote mutually exclusive categories of acquaintance, and to muddle them would be somehow beyond the boundaries of professionalism, if not decency. While there is certainly merit to be found within the notion of drawing a distinction between friendship and teaching, I can't help but to also find a few flaws in the logic (or at least in the words in which we express the idea) as well. 

Now, I don't really feel that "friend" is exactly the right word to describe how I feel about the students with whom I have taught and remain close, and it is definitely not the right word to describe how I feel about my current students, I also have to admit that it isn't all that far off either. By and large, encouraging meaningful relationships in the classroom has worked exceptionally well for me as a teacher. I feel connected to my students, and they feel connected to me, which I believe is the requisite solid ground on which a stable, sturdy, enduring program of study is built. Admitting that I do consider some students to be something like friends (friendish? friendesque?), I have to ask if that's such a sin after all.

As a writing teacher who believes in encouraging authenticity in writing tasks, I've read some deeply personal student writing on everything from divorce to to death to deployments to rehab to eating disorders to broken hearts to the ends of friendships and the list could go on and on. Likewise, in an attempt to model my expectations for my students and encourage and develop a sense of classroom community, I have shared my own deeply personal (age appropriate) writing with my students too. Even on days when we're not sharing anything one might consider "personal" in the traditional sense of the word, I feel like I'm always asking students to open themselves up to me and to our class. My courses are structured around questions like "How do human beings deal with atrocities?" and "How do race/gender/ ethnicity/class/sexuality/citizenship status impact one's experiences and beliefs?". If those kinds of questions aren't asking for pretty personal stuff, I don't really know what is. And beyond that, don't we tell students, beg them even sometimes, to come to us for help, to tell us when something isn't right at home, to report abuse or bullying? If we believe that we are worthy of that kind of trust, doesn't that make us something like friends? For that reason, I can't bring myself to nod knowingly when a colleague makes the old claim that "we're not their friends."

I guess I have to say that I'm ok with saying that we're not their "friends," but we're not "not their friends." It's really one of those cases where we lack a word to fully capture and describe a feeling; the feeling exists, but the word doesn't. I read a book once in which the narrator noted that Italians have a word - "campanilismo" - for which there is no English equivalent. "Campanilismo" literally translates as "for the love of one's bell tower," and it connotates a kind of patriotism for one's home village. As I read it, I thought to myself that we do have that feeling here too, even if we don't have a name for it. Maybe Italian teachers have a word for how they feel about their students, and maybe they'll let us in on it so we can put to rest that dreadful phrase "we're not their friends" and define our relationship in terms of what we are, instead of in terms of what we're not.