On Mission

Here we are now. Spring Break – much has happened since my last post over Winter Break. Among them are:

  • Had my first taste of Power, Justice, Freedom – Franklin’s annual student conference on social justice. We hosted a deeply encouraging day of learning – workshops for students facilitated primarily by leaders of local organizations, a keynote message from a local scholar at UW (who happened to teach my senior seminar class when I was an undergrad), a challenging (though much too brief) professional development with the aforementioned local scholar, and a community lecture from Dr. James Peterson. A powerful day for us. It’s hard for me to imagine ever leading a school where something similar does not happen.
  • Shaun King came and taught a history lesson for a city-wide event. Nikkita Oliver shared a spoken word piece on the day she announced her candidacy for mayor. The opportunity for King to speak at our school came out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon, and by Wednesday afternoon, we had a massive line of people making their way into our gym. My boss tells me this is the kind of serendipitous stuff that happens at Franklin.
  • My employment status for next year continues to be in flux. While our district as a whole is in a much better place financially than we were during winter break, there are still many question marks, and I probably won’t have many answers until summer.
  • Still, recognizing my job as fundamentally pastoral in nature has prepared me to continue moving forward unencumbered by fear or anxiety. I am on mission. I am buoyed by my sense of calling to this community at this time. I have no reason to believe I am not doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing right now, nor do I have any reason to believe that I won’t be doing exactly what I should be doing at this point next year. It was this conviction that gave me irrational confidence during the job hunt last spring, that compelled me to only apply for the few jobs available that I could do with fire, that has me doing the same thing again this spring.

There is not much time left in this school year. Just a couple of short months. We are already engaged in some end-of-year routines and about waist-deep in planning for next school year. Already, my mind is collecting and sorting the dozens of experiences I’ve had this school year where, if given another opportunity, I would respond differently. I am eager to know where I will get to apply all that I’ve learned this year.

education as formation

there are only a few things about my teaching experience that really upset me. one is dealing with homophobia (it’s bad). second, dealing with racism (the jokes aren’t funny). and three, dealing with islamaphobia (tired of the ign’ance).

as a grad student, i recall having a big debate with some of my peers regarding a joke i made about wanting to “indoctrinate” my students. indoctrinate is a pretty loaded word, but i kinda meant it. some of my peers felt like my job as a teacher is to prepare my students to pass their standardized tests. the argument goes that i need to teach them how to read and express their thoughts in writing effectively, regardless of how bigoted those thoughts might be. while the principle behind those sentiments is understandable, i just disagree. there are a lot of dubious beliefs my students hold, and it seems like it’d be irresponsible of me to not try and influence those beliefs.

today, as we discussed some readings regarding the proposed mosque near ground zero in nyc, i was stunned to find how many of my students 1) think president obama is muslim (because his middle name is hussein) 2) think “the muslims” were behind 9/11, 3) think the mosque would be used as a terrorist training center, and 4) honestly believe the only people who would support the building of the mosque are other muslims. i was even more frustrated to hear my student’s bible study leader had hijacked pauls’ everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial to imply that the mosque might be legal, but is still “immoral” (her words). now that is irresponsible.

i continued on with my work today, building on our reading and writing skills, but lurking in the back of my mind the whole time was the thought that i couldn’t allow my students to leave my classroom at the end of the year with such a twisted worldview. the purpose of education can’t be centered entirely on helping kids with the mastery of certain skills (however important they may be), but there has to be, in my opinion, some element of character formation (a la MLK, who argued that a true education is equal parts intellectual development and moral growth). indeed, if students leave my class and graduate and are able to read and understand complex texts, but still maintain certain prejudices, well they really didn’t get much an education at all.

bad teachers

last week’s newsweek has been festering in the back of my mind. in case you missed it, here’s the basic recap: there are too many bad teachers in america, and the unions are making it impossible to let these teachers go. these teachers lack the “innate” ability to be great, and even worse, they work in high poverty areas where great teachers are needed most. charter school programs and tfa represent a way out of the mess.

first off, there’s plenty that i liked about the article, and i would be remiss if i didn’t acknowledge the role that tfa played in inspiring me to teach in a high-poverty area. i probably would’ve applied to join the corps if not for some various life circumstances. though tfa is often highly criticized in the education circles i run in, i secretly admire them and their work, and i’m confident that america’s education system is improved by their efforts. there’s no doubt that they’ve made teaching in high-poverty areas a bit more sexy, and i agree with the writers when they say that any boost in prestige for the profession will attract better teacher candidates and improve the overall quality of education in america.

but what frustrates me about the article (and other right-winged education reformers) is the way they villify teachers and unions. among my many rants about the article: Continue reading


problems at work often leave me in a place of theological reflection.

as i think about how to “deal with” troublesome students in my classes, pedro noguera’s essay on the endless similarities between schools and prisons immediately comes to mind. in schools, as in prisons, delinquent behavior is dealt with through sacrificial systems that involve proportional punishment, social exclusion, and shame. even though dishing out punishments for bad behavior is done in the name of reforming the delinquent, true character transformation is rarely the result. what does result is what richard rohr calls scapegoating. we export our evil over there, project it over there, fear it over there, attack it over there, hate it over there, and ultimately destroy it over there.

so when we think about how god deals with evil, we usually think about how god is so perfect that he cannot have any sin or imperfection near him. it must be cast away, supposedly because god is just and righteous. and indeed, imperfection can only be reunited with god after it’s been cleansed by jesus’ blood.

rohr make the argument that jesus defines god’s perfection in a different way. god’s perfection does not require the removal of imperfection, like we might think. instead, god’s perfection “is the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection.” rather than exporting away evil and sin, god overwhelms it with his goodness. he doesn’t expel; he absorbs and transforms — just as he did on the cross.

i’m still trying to unpack all the implications of this. in the back of my mind is the question of “hell” and whether that idea even fits into this schema at all (it doesn’t seem like it would). but more pressing to me right now is what it might mean for how i work with my most challenging students — what might it look like to move from exclusion to embrace for my toughest kids?

take a stand

tonight, i was really excited to watch geoffrey canada lecture at the uw with carrie. canada has been running the harlem children’s zone for the past twenty years, which has as its motto, “whatever it takes.” his approach to “saving” inner city youth (his words) is comprehensive — he runs a set of integrated community programs designed to walk with kids from the cradle to college, promote physical and mental healthcare, and change how parents are raising their kids. president obama wants to try canada’s model in twenty other high poverty areas around the country.

canada said that much of what they’re doing isn’t particularly “new.” everyone knows that healthy habits will have a positive impact on academic performance, and that certain parenting practices are better for a child’s development than others. and equally important, research has long demonstrated the importance of early childhood education toward leveling the playing field, because poor students start school well behind their middle class peers.

what is revolutionary about canada and his work is the fact that he’s actually doing what we’ve known all along would work. as an aside, if nothing else, this is probably the most important point i can take from his talk. he shared a story from his professional life when the secretary of education asked him for some advice about how to fix education in america. at this point, he realized that superman was not going to swoop in and save the day, there was no grand plan somewhere that would wipe out all the educational inequity problems; that, if he wanted to see change, he would have to make it happen himself. Continue reading

you might not actually like him

it’s dr. king’s birthday, and his message has sadly been trivialized. i remember as a child being taught that he was a man that wanted racial equality for all. nothing more, nothing less. he was the antithesis of malcolm x, who was a lil too militant. and so, with this domesticated holiday, we can commemorate dr. king’s courageous stand against racial intolerance, while avoiding the harder task of grappling with his radical politics of equality and what they might mean today. (for more, see the martin luther king you don’t see on tv.)

dr. king led civil disobedience campaigns against what he described as the “unjust” war in vietnam. he declared america “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and pleaded for our nation’s leaders to practice non-violent conflict resolution. in the mccarthy era, dr. king challenged young men to not support anti-communist american campaigns by refusing to join the u.s. war machine, in part because such campaigns made victims of poor non-whites. he ripped u.s. foreign policy, calling it “militaristic” and on the “wrong side of a world revolution.” in ways that would make every young republican shudder to the core, dr. king advocated for a radical redistribution of power and wealth in america in the form of a government compensatory program to the tune of $50 billion over ten years. yes, he’s talking about reparations.

so in many ways, a holiday truly celebrating dr. king’s life and legacy can’t simply focus on a single speech in front of the lincoln memorial. the holiday, if it is to be what it claims to be, must have two basic functions: to legitimize dr. king’s radical social/ political agenda and to deligitimize any social structure that supports racism, a free trade market economy, an anti-communist foreign policy (yeah that ones controversial), and a politics that tries to repress the power of the state rather than one that exists to spread power through the redistribution of wealth & complete reconstitution of society. Continue reading

i also deny the resurrection of jesus

one of my favorite authors was recently on a north american tour to chat about his book and the different issues that it raises. 

he’s known as much for his clever word-plays, turns of phrase, and linguistic acrobatics, as he is for merging the insights of postmodern theorists with theology. to his critics who prefer straight forward answers, he can be absolutely infuriating. but to those who can at least sympathize with his philosophical inclinations, he is a much needed prophetic voice. 

at calvin college, a faculty member asked him if his philosophical beliefs led him to deny the resurrection of christ. 

he responded with this: 

Without equivocation or hesitation, I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anybody who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed. Continue reading

empowering education

something that’s already surfaced in a couple of my classes this quarter is this idea of empowering education.  

for example, let’s say i’m teaching at a low-income high school, and 20 of my 30 students are reading at a 6th grade level.  should i:

a) push them to try and read hemingway, o’connor, and shakespeare?
b) give them comic books?  

option a is the kind of stuff that’ll prepare someone for college. option b is traditionally not. but here’s the rub: the students will actually engage with the comic books because it’s interesting and at their reading level. the visuals help their comprehension and they’re more likely to persist with something when they experience success.  there’s not a lot of success to be experienced by these students when they’re asked to stomach the western canon 

i definitely don’t know the answer to this question.  

yes, i’m working with special ed kids, and the odds are already stacked against them. but consider this: when i interviewed someone at the administrative level of special ed services for the bellevue school district last week, he reported to me a ridiculous number of their special ed kids go to college. compare that to the school i taught at last spring, where they were happy to simply graduate a school-record six students from their program, none of whom were on their way to college. eastside kids going to college, dirty-south kids on their way to low-wage work. that just ain’t right.  

schools have the power to either reproduce social inequities or resist ’em by churning out empowered underprivileged youth. but i’m not sure if there’s much empowering that can come from a dumbed down curriculum.

thinking good thoughts isn’t good enough

while i was in school, it became increasingly en vogue for christians to “engage the culture.” this was novel at the time, since christians would more commonly withdraw from culture into a safe enclave of fellow believers. leaving the enclave to engage with the larger culture was refreshing.

but this had some problems (not the least of which is the fact that there’s no such thing as THE larger culture). according to andy crouch, engaging the culture today is almost synonymous with merely thinking about the culture, with the frequently false assumption being that action would come soon after reflection. the belief was that cultural artifacts like film, art, music, etc. emerge from deeply-rooted philosophical beliefs/world-view, and we must study these because they should be engaged rather than ignored. but when trying to engage the culture by watching movies and viewing contemporary art, the viewer gets better at thinking deep thoughts (thank you CHID!), but gains no such wisdom in how to participate in the hustle and bustle of creating culture, which is where i think the task of cultural engagement actually lies.

so, when talking about addressing america’s social ills like racism, sexism, etc., you may have heard people say, “we just gotta change people’s world-views” via dialogue, criticism, or some events that promote awareness. the hope is that an increase in awareness (or change of world-view, thought) will lead to new cultural artifacts (like laws) that address said social ills. it isn’t enough to critique & expose racist representations in the media. it’s not enough to think good thoughts — the impact of the best social criticism will never rival the cultural impact of the ipod. so i’m starting to wonder if we’ve got it backwards — the task of changing an internal world-view actually begins with the external development of new cultural artifacts, and not the other way around.

that’s racist!

i’m sitting in suzallo cafe, trying to work on a paper, when a white female student approaches me and asks if i speak english.  my blood pressures suddenly spikes.  i think to myself — “well, at least i’m gonna have a great story to share after this…”

“yes,” i emphatically reply.  she asks if i’d like to participate in a study.  i wonder if i should let her know some of my thoughts regarding her initial question.  i decide not to, and agree to the study.  

it’s a word study game.  the letters a, e, t, s, l, r and s are on top of the page and my instructions are to arrange the letters to make as many words as possible.  i write words down at a torrid pace, but i only fill up 16 of the 20 blank spaces.  i ask if i’m being timed and she says no, i can finish whenever i want.  

so i stop.

then, she hands me a few more pages with a questionnaire. first, some interesting biographical info.

how american do you feel? how much do you identify as an american? when you were twelve, did you want to be an american? is it important that people see you as american?   Continue reading