Sunday, August 14, 2011

Studying political language in 2011?

Every year in my English classes, we learn a lot about rhetoric by studying political language, and I'm pretty sure that a big part of the political debate this year will center on the budget deficit. I feel like my students have to have a grasp of the facts to detect spin, so it almost feels like they should understand the contents of the CBO’s Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options. One problem is that this document is 256 pages long, and I’m not sure I can expect my students to read that in addition to covering the curriculum.

Here are some resources I've used in recent years. For the 2008 election, KQED’s You Decide had a series of activities that had you continually state your side on a political issue and then challenged your assumptions by presenting opposing viewpoints. They created a similar resource for economic issues in 2010. That year the Corporation for Public Broadcasting also put together Economy Story that provided stories and resources for understanding the economy from across public media, but it looks like that site went dormant as of May 2010. I know of NewsTrust’s Truth Squad.
Some might say that this should just be taught in social studies or economics classes, but I feel like it's such an important time for our country, and this is such a ripe area for analyzing language use, that I don't want to give up on the topic because it seems so complicated. Anyone have any other ideas for how to teach the language of politics this upcoming academic year?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Bridging the Gulf

Detail from Franklin's print shop.
As I continue try to balance my high school teaching duties with my doctoral studies, I came across "Rethinking Ed Tech Research," by Punya Mishra that encapsulates a central dynamic that I've learned about the relationship of research/theory and practice.  More specifically, how researchers and pracitioners view each other.  And remarkably, how little contact there is between the world of academic research and the day to day practice of teaching.

When I conduct workshops for my colleagues in schools, I sometimes have participants read a research study. Invariable someone takes offense, sometimes because it challenges our own expertise, the belief (in most cases correct) that "no one knows my students better than I do."  Additionally practitioners often discount research because it's distant (both in the sense that the language isn't the most reader-friendly, but also distant in the sense that it seems so far removed from anything we teachers experience on a day to day basis).

Similarly it didn't take me long in my graduate studies to realize that a lot of the action research teachers conduct in our classrooms is rarely valued by researchers.  Sometimes the professorial attitude seems a bit condescending, but other times this opinion is warranted. Speaking for myself, much of my own research and writing makes sense to me in my own situation, but it's not always generalizable. So I have to be honest with my teacher-researcher self and ask, "what good is it to the educational community if it's only relevant to me?"

One solution is to bring these worlds together in schools that maybe don't exist right now. If John Dewey were here, I'm guessing he'd create some kind of virtual or hybrid laboratory school where researchers would bounce their ideas off practitioners in process, and practitioners could apply these emerging research findings to their practice. Continuing the learning loop, researchers might benefit from practical applications of their ideas, and that it turn would make their research ideas more dynamic. Teaching loads might be reconfigured as well. Professors could teach children some of the time, and working teachers might lead a few graduate student seminars.

I read a lot about how K-12 schooling and higher education in their current forms are becoming less relevant for today's learners. One way to make formal education more relevant would be to locate more intersections to these two mostly parallel universes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Don't cut the good stuff, or My two cents (literally)

I could tell a lot of compelling stories about how the talented, dedicated people associated with the National Writing Project have made teachers like me more effective educators, and I have a lot of test scores and samples of student work that show that they have become better writers because of the NWP programs.

Instead, I'll consider the NWP through numbers.

First off, I have to say that like every other American, I'm concerned with our ballooning deficit – currently $14 trillion (or about $45,000 for each and every one of us). It's clear that we've got to rein in spending, but we need to make sure we don't cut programs that are not only proven to be educationally beneficial but also ones that are cost-effective.  Here's why cutting funding for the National Writing Project just doesn't make sense.  In 2007 Inverness Research reported this data:
  • NWP inservice reached 90,000 teachers and 60 million students
  • 98% of teachers who attend NWP institutes say NWP is better than other professional development
  • the NWP is an "ongoing national infrastructure for the improvement of the teaching of writing."

There's no denying that our elected representatives have some difficult choices, but what will it take to close the budget gap? For an idea go to the New York Times Budget Puzzle interactive feature and try to fix the budget problem yourself.  It's pretty clear that the NWP funding won't significantly reduce the deficit. Personally I believe in the concept of "shared sacrifice."  For instance, as a baby boomer, keeping the retirement age at 65 would certainly benefit me.  But it's clear that as my generation ages, we'll need to work beyond the age of 65. According to the New York Times graphic, just by increasing the retirement age to 68, we could save $13 billion by 2015.  By contrast we would save $25.6 million by not funding the National Writing Project.

To get a sense for what that's like in the dollar amounts more like the ones I usually deal with, I'll illustrate with an example.  Let's say I wanted to buy a new Smart Pure Coupe with all the extras.  The car dealer tells me that I can have it for $14,000 and on top of that they're offering a special cost-cutting deal – 2¢ off the sticker price!

That's the kind of savings we'd get if the NWP funding gets cut. The dent put in the deficit would be a whopping 0.0000002%. 

This is one case where the savings clearly isn't worth the cost.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Where the fault lies

One of the joys of teaching Shakespeare is that his works are timeless, cited almost daily in the media.

We're just starting to read Julius Caesar in my AP English Language and Composition class, and I've come across two recent references to the play – one that in my opinion accurately invokes a quote, and one that exudes irony.

First, here's an excerpt of a description of the documentary Reagan, where the author accurately invokes a couple of memorable lines from the play:
"Ronald Reagan as a man, as compared to his legacy, is rich territory for exploration, and a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is just one of the many things that springs to mind after viewing filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's latest opus, Reagan (Jarecki's Why We Fight won the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Documentary). Speaking at his funeral, Mark Antony said of Caesar, 'The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.'"

The second example comes from Cal Thomas, self-described as America's #1 nationally syndicated columnist, who references the oft-repeated "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves" quote in his January 10, 2010 column "Explaining Evil."  In the aftermath of the January 8, 2011 Tucson shooting, Thomas contends that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is solely to blame for the tragedy, that the individual bears fulls responsibility for his action; Thomas interprets the quote to mean the singular "self" in a collective sense – as in, "we're each responsible for our own actions, and we shouldn't blame society for the things that we as individuals choose to do." I agree in part. Loughner acted on his own and wasn't forced to fire into a crowd. There's no disputing that.

Thomas argues that it's not contemporary vitriolic political talk that's to blame: "Radio, TV and social media didn’t exist when actor John Wilkes Booth, a confederate sympathizer, shot and killed Abraham Lincoln," Thomas argues.  Personally, I think the "fault" in the Arizona tragedy is in "ourselves" exactly the way Shakespeare originally intended, not in the way Thomas uses the quote.

As I reread the quote tonight in the context of the play, the allusion Thomas makes is full of irony.  Here's the full quote:
"Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Death of Caesar by Michele Cammarano, 1798.
The quote is uttered by the character Cassius, who plots the murder of a politician because he's jealous and paranoid. When Cassius says "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves," he is speaking to none other than Brutus (he of "et tu Brute?" fame).  When Cassius uses the word "ourselves," he is speaking as a self-appointed savior of the republic; he's worried that too much power will be centralized into one office. And when Cassius utters these words, Brutus is conflicted – on the one hand he worries that Caesar's growing popularity will be a threat to the republic, but on the other hand he's Caesar's friend.  Brutus, however, never contemplates such a rash act as murder until Cassius shrewdly and persistently manipulates Brutus to come to the conclusion that the only way to save the republic is to assassinate the leader who threatens the ideal.

There was no talk radio or cable TV in Caesar's time either. Brutus and his cronies target Caesar in a calculated assassination, incited by lies and guileful language. It's true that we don't need social media to do that. But the "fault" was, and always will be, in "ourselves" – in the individual sense and in the collective sense. Just like Shakespeare meant it.