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

the new conspirators

in my reflection seminar, we read the dissertation of a uw phd candidate that looked at how poor, ethnic minority kids are socially ostracized in schools by students and teachers. the paper shared story after story of racist acts, and sadly, these were all recent examples around the seattle area. schools are supposed to be a social justice-oriented institution… they should give all students equal access to power, especially students of minority groups who historically have been denied access.  

the dissertation found that schools actually serve the opposite function.  despite being a foundational pillar of any democracy, our schools help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  how bizarre…

i’ve been reading a book called the new conspirators by tom sine.  a very well-researched book that definitely stands out to me as one i’ll want to revisit often.  on education, he says:

the public education system contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor in the united states. in the shame of the nation, jonathan kozol documents that over the past twelve years, american public schools are resegregating america.  unlike other western countries that fund public education through taxes, american public schools rely on local levies; consequently wealthy school districts often spend twice as much per pupil as poor school districts.  this means that the growing number of children who attend poorly funded urban public schools have less of a chance of going on to college than their suburban counterparts who attend highly financed schools with cutting-edge technology.  as a consequence, some, like their parents, will be stuck in dead-end service jobs that don’t pay a living wage.  frankly, this new global economy is going to leave growing numbers of the poor behind in all countries if we don’t discover how god might use our mustard seeds individually and collectively to be an expression of god’s compassion for the marginalized.  

[the new conspirators: creating the future one mustard seed at a time, by tom sine] Continue reading

interested in teaching for $125,000?…

conventional wisdom would tell you that a raise in the average teacher’s salary would lead to better teachers in more classrooms.  and getting better teachers might be a worthy goal: i hear often that the single most important factor in pursuing educational equity is having more bad-ass teachers in schools. better technology, healthier foods, and more resources will always help, but attracting (and keeping) great teachers may have the most significant impact of them all.  

one charter school in ny is taking this theory very seriously.  the equity project charter school, the brain-child of a tfa alumnus, is set to pay their teachers $125,000/year when it opens in 2009.  or about 3x more than i’ll be making.  the principal won’t even make that much — and he’s the founder of the school! predictably, they’ve been receiving inquiries from people all over, some of whom will be invited to go through their rigorous application process.  

this wall street journal article tempers the enthusiasm surrounding the idea that better teacher pay is “the answer” by arguing that better compensation hasn’t been demonstrated to make all that much of a difference.  at $34.06/hr, public school teachers are already paid better than many other professionals (why, oh why does progressive seattle give their teachers the lowest salaries on the west coast??), but districts who offered teachers higher pay did not see much of a pay-off in the way of better student performances.  

but i have a feeling that a six-figure salary might be a game-changer.

new wineskins

i can’t stand your religious meetings.  i’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. i want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals.  i’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.  i’ve had all i can take of your noisy ego-music.  when was the last time you sang to me?  

do you know what i want?  i want justice – oceans of it.  

i want fairness – rivers of it.  

that’s what i want.  that’s all i want.  

[amos 5:21-24]

i once read a reflection from a burnt out minister about how she felt more like a concert-promoter and events-coordinator than a youth pastor.  her words were so powerful to me.  as a pastor in a big church, national artists would regularly come play at her church, and weekend after weekend, she found herself stuck in her office making fliers and writing pr announcements.  the longer she did those things, the less she felt like she was living out her calling as a shepherd. these were usually considered “outreach events” and done with good intentions by well-meaning people; unfortunately, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.   Continue reading

christian life

i was recently chatting with a friend at his house.

i told him about one of my students.  he was given an assignment to create a powerpoint presentation on his own life, and one of the slides he created was entitled “future goals.”  one of his goals was, “not go to jail.”  i asked him about the goal and he shared about how his mother, father, and brother are all currently in prison.  

teaching has felt like ministry to me, so it was no wonder that i felt conflicted about how to respond to him.  as his teacher, i wanted to encourage him to stay on the right track; as a christian, i wanted to tell him there is hope in christ.  obviously, i could not legally share with him the latter.  so i wonder, what does it mean to be a christian teacher?  after all, every teacher — christian or not — would’ve encouraged him to “stay on the right track.”  do i have a unique message to share? Continue reading