Melt Right In

25 09 2010

When I was growing up, I watched a ton of Saturday morning cartoons.  Like most people my age, I loved School House Rock.  I would watch the cartoons on ABC more than the other three channels we got because it carried the 5-min. lessons told in song between episodes.

Now that I have kids, SHR doesn’t play anymore.  So I had to buy them on DVD.  And, naturally, my kids love them.  They have their favorites and they like to sing along.  In fact, I caught them this evening watching and singing along to the America Rock episodes.

If you ask anyone to name their favorite, they’ll usually name off I’m Just A Bill or Conjunction Junction.  Those tunes were awful catchy, but my favorite was American Melting Pot.  This was reinforced a few years back when I caught a stage production of SHR for elementary students.  The performers on stage were incredibly talented and truly deserved to go on to bigger and better things.  Of the songs chosen for the hour-long show, I was really happy to see they included American Melting Pot.  The woman who sang it had a gorgeous voice and really brought out the depth and beauty of the song — both musically and lyrically.  Here’s the original version in youtube form:

If you click on the video and actually go to youtube, you can find the full lyrics. There’s a wonderful line right in the first verse that goes:

They’d heard about a country
Where life might let them win,
They paid the fare to America
And there they melted in.

Yesterday, Stephen Colbert testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the legalization of undocumented agriculture workers.  As you can imagine, his presence caused quite a ruckus within the members of the committee, and Rep. John Conyers even asked him to leave!  (The chair, Zoe Lofgren, asked him to stay, so he got to speak.)  But what many of the democrats who support the bill didn’t seem to understand, Colbert’s presence was tweeted and publicized all over the internet and drew much attention to what is (or is not) being done about this problem right now.  Here’s his say:

As you can tell, he stayed in character for most of the time and tried to add levity to the hearing.  His words *should* have given the lawmakers pause to consider the human factor in all this, but I’m not sure what would help there.

This is a tough topic with no easy answers, at least I don’t have an answer.  I do, however, always take a stance on treating people with respect.  And Colbert ended his time by saying exactly what I feel:  “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers … these seem like the least of our brothers.”  For this important moment, he completely breaks out of character and ensures the committee that he means what he says.  He ends by saying, “Migrant workers suffer …and have no rights.”  Here’s his last words captured on video, so you can see what Stephen Colbert looks like in those rare moments when he’s being serious.

Again, I don’t know what the answer here is.  But somehow this just feels connected to the Health Care issue, the fear of persons of non-Christian faiths, and the revocation of welfare assistance during these tough economic times.  At some point, we should treat people equally and with respect.  As in my last post, we have to be courageous when we see people not being given the freedoms that we all want to enjoy.

What happens to the least of us, reflects upon us all.  It’s a melting pot.


But what have the Romans ever done for us?

10 08 2009

Whenever I hear someone ask what America has ever done for them (and I’ve heard that, trust me!), I know no answer will pacify them.  At least, not one I can think of on the spot.  I wish I could throw out answers like this…

Earth Day

22 04 2009

Happy Earth Day!

If you google Earth Day you’ll find an eponymous collection of historical and propaganda-esque pages — both positive and negative.  It’s almost annoying how a non-state holiday commemorating an idea instead of an event can cause controversy .  Well, I have a couple of thoughts on this myself, of course…

To begin, I’ve met Senator Nelson, celebrated founder of Earth Day.  At least the one celebrated here in America.  He was warm and well-educated.  I got to ask him what he felt was the most pressing issue facing global ecology today, and his answer was very insightful.

I met him at Governor’s School in 1989 when he came as an invited speaker.  He talked for over an hour with no slides or video, just him and a podium.  Fascinating talk about the history of Earth Day and his purpose for presenting the bill to Congress.  The environment was as big of an issue then as it is now, but focused more on clean air than temperatures.  Here’s how the conversation went:  (if this seems really stiff and rehearsed, it’s because it was!  heh.)

Me:  What can I do as just some teenager to help the global crisis?

Nelson:  Try to keep your neighborhood clean and be wary of pollution from local industries.

[right, you see the blow-off generic response he did there?]

Me:  What I mean is, there’s a lot of talk about the destruction of tropical rain forests.  I want to help fight this problem.  Is there some way I can take part?

Nelson:  There’s a lot of press on what’s happening in Brazil, yet no one seems to notice that we’re wiping out the old-growth forests up in Washington State.  If the citizens there would start paying attention to what’s happening around them, that destruction might be deterred.  What sort of stuff is happening around here that should be stopped?  Do you know?  Why would you, as a teenager, ever care more about Brazil than your own backyard?

At that time I felt he was avoiding the question.  I wanted an answer to the question I asked, but what I got was a re-direction and an accusation. Because I felt jilted, I remembered his words and dwelled on them for a long time.

What I remember most about Senator Nelson was his domineering size.  He was somewhat tall and moderately built, but his hands were huge!  When I shook his hand I could swear that he could have wrapped it around mine three times!  Guess that makes him a born politician.

Now that I’m older and have become a realist (instead of a youthful dreamer), I understand that what he said has a lot of merit, if not an absolute truth.  I’m still not sure what to do about the global condition, but I *do* try to pick up bits of paper and other trash when I see it wherever I go.  As long as we can leave this world a little better than we found it, then we’ve done our part.

So I’m really glad I got a chance to meet him, and I do look forward to Earth Day every year.  If each one of us just did a little bit toward helping our environment then we wouldn’t have the major problems that require us to spend countless millions of dollars to fix.  The definition of “little bit” may be different to a preschooler from a corporate director, but the decisions we make each day do make us who we are.  And those decisions aren’t just for you — they’re for all of us.

Arne Duncan, a teacher weighs in

16 12 2008

“To out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.”  — President-elect Barack Obama

And with those words he appointed Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to be the Secretary of Education.  He’s a man carrying a great deal of controversial decisions on his back, including closing schools that can’t seem to improve and overhauling curricula.

Here’s how I feel about it…

Plus:  He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard.

You can’t attribute that to politics.

Minus:  He has no formal teaching experience.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but it still makes me nervous.

Plus:  He’s for merit pay.

Most teachers are against this because the criteria for determining achievement is too subjective — which means that politics will trump ability.  But if the program doesn’t take money away from those who aren’t kicking out the top performers, then what’s the problem?  I’m for this 100%.  As I’ve said before, my motivation is seeing my students accepted at the top colleges and then going on to do something incredible.  Right now teacher pay scale is determined by seniority.  And a teacher gets a pay bump each year regardless of the performance of their students.  No tracking of students has been initiated on a large-scale level, and teachers aren’t told what happens to their kids down the road.  Teachers basically have to work blind.  Merit pay can be implemented only if there’s a solid record of the students’ abilities coming into the classroom and going out.  These records can be compiled, reduced, and utilized to finally see what works and what doesn’t in *everyone’s* classrooms.

Minus:  He isn’t for dumping NCLB.

In my opinion this is the worst educational program in my lifetime, and one of the worst in our nation’s history.  Those who don’t spend time in the classroom working directly with students only know the theory behind the policy, and the theory sounds good.  But in practice, it’s killing me as a teacher.  There’s a belief that student achievement can only feasibly be measured with a standardized fill-in-the-bubble test.  Only half of a teacher’s job is filling kids’ heads with knowledge and skills.  The rest is inspiration.  No one learns what they do not *wish* to learn.  A student needs to be motivated.  They need to *want* to learn.  Much of that falls on the parents, but teachers must cultivate it.  Testing them all the time brings a lesson in and of itself — that our goal for them is to be able to recite information and methods for our sake.  What’s their goal for themselves?  Shouldn’t THAT be the focus of any and all educational policies?  NCLB has got to go.

Plus:  He’s willing to shut down a failing school and fire the teachers.

This isn’t just a promise.  He’s done it.

Minus:  He does bring the stigma of being a political friend of Obama.

Obama is doing a decent job of selecting a diverse group of advisers and cabinet members from around the country.  He should be allowed to choose someone he thinks is good while also being from his past.  But in this case he had a pool of comparable choices for the post.  Not a biggie, though.

Plus:  He supports charter schools and the spirit of competition in education.

Without competition, how do you know if your school/doctor/mechanic/president is doing a good job?

Minus:  Given his career, I’m unsure of his exposure to rural districts.

I always said one of the worst curriculum decisions that my old, urban school district made was the removal of Home Ec.  That class was pivotal to teaching simple chemistry and measuring techniques to an entire set of students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in those things.  And it shows in the performance of those students today.  You can say the same for shop class.

Plus:  He’s for transparency in school performance.

Up until two years ago my state had a website that anyone could access with a slew of information about any public school in the state.  Not only did I find this refreshing, and in some cases eye-opening, but I could also assign students the task of determining possible factors in student performance based upon the wealth of data they could access.  That site has since been removed.  I’ve contacted those in charge of maintaining that information and have been told that it was simply too time-consuming, and therefore would probably not be returning.  If Mr. Duncan can force states to report en masse to a team of analysts who can then disseminate the information back out to the public, that would be a major achievement.

So overall I think it was a good pick.  Let’s hope it was.  Feel free to give your opinion on matters in the comments.

Why does McCain hate planetariums?

9 10 2008

So it looks like I’m going with the majority of voters this fall.  I’m not voting for someone as much as I’m voting against someone else.  Last night’s debate gave me clarity in my decision for president by a ridiculously ignorant comment by John McCain.

If you’ve kept up with the blogosphere today you’ve surely caught word that McCain once again criticized Obama for seeking federal funding for the Adler Plantarium. This time he showed his ignorance of the whole thing by saying the planetarium (he couldn’t bring himself to actually say the name “Adler”) wanted $3 million for an “overhead projector.”  I keep writing “ignorance” in the hope that it wasn’t pure stupidity.

I was more angry about his misconstruing what equipment goes into these incredible educational tools than his call to stop all federally funded earmarks (that is what he was wanting, right?).  The actual device they need has the ability to mingle science, art, and imagination into a fully immersive environment that can perform every teacher’s number one goal:  it inspires kids.  There is a reason why half of NASA’s astronauts claim to have been inspired in their youth by a visit to a planetarium.  The equipment it would replace is 40 years old, which would cause most science theaters to either update or shut down  (see the closing of UALR’s planetarium, 2001, at 37 years old).  To maintain a facility that has inspired millions over the years, including me this past summer, and to ensure those field trip visitors go home excited about science, $3 million is a small price to pay.

Go here and read a great article by Dr. Jim Sweitzer on this.  He and I spent some time together last October in W. Virginia.  He’s the one who gave me that great poster comparing global warming with carbon dioxide levels I have up in my classroom!

There is some validity to the argument that this should be funded by private donations or local/state governments.  As someone who has worked in the planetarium field I can assure you that getting continuing funds for operating expenses and maintenance is an annual beg-fest.  You learn to utilize every possible avenue for funding you can think of.  Asking the fed for a needed grant is something many planetariums have done.  In fact, turns out that once before when the Adler asked for $200,000 for an education grant McCain voted for it!

The folks at Adler are more than a little blindsided by all the publicity they’ve received from this.  Mark Webb, director of the Adler planetarium and a friend of mine, has been fielding interview requests all day.  They’ve finally issued a public statement:

Science literacy is an urgent issue in the United States. To remain competitive and ensure national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

As a result of the hard work of our bipartisan congressional delegation, the Adler has been fortunate to receive a few federal appropriations the past couple of years. However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama’s efforts. This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in the reports that accompany appropriations bills.

I snipped a lot of this.  To read the whole statement go here.

So here’s the skinny… [warning, rant ahead]  McCain first called the funding of planetariums “foolishness” and then he re-iterated that by calling a planetarium projection system an “overhead projector” and asking “My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”.  Well, my friend, yeah.  Yeah we do.  And here’s what I think of your comments toward our educators and the education system as a whole:

Your comments smack of an education system with negative momentum. I want to believe that whoever gets elected would actually want to reverse NCLB and try to undo the damage done by forcing children and teachers into the constraints set by Bush’s master plan, but with statements like this all I can see is a Bush clone.  I don’t believe you have any clue what educational challenges await this generation, and as long as you demonstrate an aversion to working with educators and trusting that their funding requests are valid, you have the potential to be their greatest obstacle.  Either educate yourself about the cost of keeping students current and competitive, or else step aside and let someone lead who actually wants the job. [/rant]

But I have to wonder… why aren’t more questions about education being asked of our candidates?  Are most Americans to the point where they just expect the worst from the system?  It’s the federal government’s involvement that has things screwed up.  So only the feds can make it right again… by getting out of it.

Planetariums in Politics

20 09 2008

So if you’ve kept up with this blog, you know I’ve so far avoided much political posturing.  In fact, this is the only post I’ve ever used a “politics” category or tag.  That’s because I’ve seen too many popular blogs use politics as a means to attract readers.  This post is not to rile a bunch of “hooray for my side” sentiments, it’s simply to point to a political uh-oh that I care about.

Last week McCain was defending Palin’s pet projects and spending record. Then he criticized Obama for seeking large earmarks himself — almost $900 million, according to McCain’s sources.  “That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said.  To me, this is just political noise like the rest of them, and I’m barely paying attention.

But then he says, “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

Now he has my attention.

It doesn’t take much digging to find out what McCain was alluring to. It’s right here in the official record, first item.  I’ve already heard from the folks at the Adler.  The request was valid.  And after visiting Adler this past summer with professionals from all over the Earth, I can assure you that real education is going on there and the American public should be proud we have it.  The Sky Theater of focus here could certainly use some updating, especially when you consider how much we’ve learned since it’s construction.

But McCain didn’t give the Adler as a specific example.  He said “planetariums”, as in all of them.  At what point did it seem like a good idea to call our nation’s most vast and ancient of educational institutions “foolishness”?  This comment, mostly ignored by the rest of the news media, has driven home a point about the Republican party of the last eight years that I can see being echoed in the one led by McCain — that education and science aren’t nearly as important as making sure the world knows we like fightin’!  I would even go so far as to call the addition of Palin to the ticket a sign of anti-science policy.  I’ve had it with firing scientific advisors who won’t forge documents, allowing oil companies to determine their own environmental impacts, and pushing for schools to compare students in a strictly numerical sense instead of allowing for qualitative assessments.  (I have a whole blog post in my mind about that last one, but I’ll hold off for now!)

I have no love for any candidate.  I’m not supporting any individual or party.  But I am ready for whoever is willing to let teachers run their classrooms again, give approving nods to real scientists and experts, and stop this blasted war.  Is that too much to ask?

Oh, and could they sound just a little smarter than Bush?  That’d be nice.