Sunday, September 30, 2018

How Do You Say Justice? Just Us.

You want to know how much of the Kavanaugh-Ford confrontation I watched?

None of it. Not even a video news summary or story afterward. Sure, I read about it, but I was not going to buy in to a spectacle that was more thermal heat than pinprick of light from a distant star. And I was not going to justify the breathless coverage, titillating details and abject outrage that both sides were peddling in the run-up to Thursday's hearing.

But as spectacle, it was, well, spectacular. Here we had a woman who clearly believes she was sexually molested and feared for her safety and virtue, and a man who said that it never ever happened. What are we supposed to take away from this? In short, the only thing we can take from this, which is that two people disagree about what happened. There were no verifiable facts. There were no corroborating witnesses. There was just emotion. 

Perhaps now with an FBI investigation, something approaching evidence might appear. Maybe there are witnesses, who have so far remained silent, who will come forward. But if not, what this process has shown us is that we as a country are as divided as ever and are more than willing to take our opinions down to the village square. 

But what really bothers me is the assumption that the system is broken and that if this is the way that Supreme Court nominees are going to be treated, then how will we get anyone on the court? And the reason it bothers me is because it puts women like Dr. Ford and Professor Anita Hill in the position of liars who should be quiet because the nominees somehow deserve to win confirmation. 

"If only you hadn't brought your petty trauma to the village square," we say. 

"If only you had learned early on that men can and will act like, what, men? boys? and that you need to be quiet and let them get it out of their systems."

"If only you had thought about someone other than yourself and your hurt and pain and put the national interest before your petty concerns."

"If only you had reported this assault as soon as it happened. Then we would believe you." 

Because we all remember the scores of gymnasts and other female college athletes who went en masse to the police at Michigan State and USC after being repeatedly violated over at least a decade. It didn't happen and it's likely not to happen in the future if this is the way we're going to treat victims of sexual assault.

The remedy to all of this is oh so simple:

Nominate people who haven't tried to sexually assault other people.

How about we do that? Did Samuel Alito assault anyone? John Roberts? Neil Gorsuch? No, they did not. You might not want any of them on the court for political reasons, but they seem to be worthy of their appointments. How about the female justices? No problem either.

We also learned quite a bit about Brett Kavanaugh from his defense. Going defensive and angry and obstinate was not the best strategy, but when the template is in the White House, I suppose you give it your best shot. What we saw, though, was a judge who is supposed to rule dispassionately lose his cool at the worst possible moment. I certainly understand his feelings, but what good did it do? It would have been far better for him to simply answer the questions and to tell the Senators who thought they were helping him by being outraged to stop the histrionics. I suppose that when everybody tells you that you were born for the court, you might get testy when it turns out you're not. 

In then end, though, the real travesty about this nomination fight is not necessarily the accusations against Kavanaugh, which are being investigated and he's been called to account for, but the nomination process itself. Like other nominees before him, Brett Kavanaugh dissembled, deflected, obfuscated and made opaque his judicial views and any sense of what kind of justice he might be. Of course, we all know what his judicial philosophy is, but can someone please answer a question?

And the biggest lie is the one he told when he said that certain cases, Roe being the most contentious, represented settled law. This is serious hogwash and Kavanaugh and the Senators and the Congress know this. After all, Roe upended settled law in most states by legalizing a procedure that was illegal, in the same way that Brown overturned segregation, and other settled law decisions such as Lochner, Gobitis (overturned three years later), Korematsu (June), Abood (June)  and many others were also summarily overturned. And previous rights that were not specifically enumerated were then found to be constitutional, such as corporate speech in Citizen's United, personal gun ownership in Heller, and gay marriage rights in Obergefell.

So don't tell me that any previous case decided by the court is settled and therefore could not be overturned. That's why you were nominated, Brett; to be the deciding vote to deny people the right to vote, or to an attorney, to be treated legally by the police, or to have control over one's own body.

It took Nixon and Reagan three tries before they found their justices in 1969 and 1987, respectively. Perhaps Brett Kavanaugh is not the best choice for this position and that we need to look elsewhere. 

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Men Will Be Boys. And That's the Problem.

And boys, you know, can be clueless about some things, like sexual harassment and thinking that they can do anything to a girl or woman if they feel like doing it. They also sometimes have trouble understanding just how offensive they are by dismissing a woman's claim that she's been the victim of any kind of unwanted action.

So here we are again.

Of course, how you see the Kavanagh-Blasey Ford issue depends on what side of the political spectrum you inhabit, and I tend to agree with these sentiments about how careful we all need to be in the absence of a thorough investigation.

And that's the point. We need the legal authorities to conduct a thorough investigation before we rush to judgement, even though that train left on the hour, and now it's proverbially ten past. Forcing Dr. Blasey Ford to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee will only create a he said-she said moment that does not serve the interests of justice.

Which leads directly to the next point;  that the Republicans on the committee, and in the Senate, have very little interest in the actual, factual, verifiable story. Senator Charles Grassley has already telegraphed (what a quaint saying, no?) his intentions by saying that Dr. Blasey Ford must appear this week, or the committee will go forward with their vote to send Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the whole Senate. Thursday seems to be good for everybody, but that still doesn't allow for an investigation.

In truth, Grassley's argument is not one of facts, but one of time. We don't have time to weigh your arguments, little lady, because if this gets drawn out past the elections and we lose the Senate, then we might never be able to strike down legal protections and precedents regarding your womb, your medicine cabinet, your pantry, your LGBTQ children/relatives/acquaintances, your water, your air, your employer's right to pay you less, your right to overcome corporate-based arbitration if you get hurt by one of our products, your privacy, your medical care, your education, and your vote.

To rush the process would undermine the justice system and everything Judge Kavanaugh has said during his hearings about weighing evidence and rendering a fair, just verdict. At least that's what I think he meant behind all of the obfuscation and non-answering. There's still plenty of time to conduct an investigation, get the facts, listen to the two individuals involved, and come to some kind of conclusion before November's election.

Or maybe Senator Grassley wants to rush so that the president and other GOP guys can't continue to say foolish things about why Dr. Blasey Ford didn't rush to the police at age 15 or come forward earlier. All you have to do is witness the abuse she's endured in the past week to answer those charges. And if you think it's just women who fall silent in the face of abuse, then think again. Certainly, more women are sexually abused, but the stigma attached to it affects all people.

Justice delayed is justice denied. But so it justice rushed.

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Storm Before the Storm

For a man who demands loyalty, the steady drip of betrayals and plea bargains have to be driving the president wacky. And by the tone of his recent tweets, I'd say that I'm not saying anything new.

But loyalty is as loyalty does, and President Trump has repeatedly shown that he is not terribly loyal, even to those who have supported him. He's burned through more cabinet members than other recent presidents as well as staff members and advisors, and every person who's left has been the subject of a personal and public attack that demonstrates the personal nature of which the president sees these relationships. Of course, when everything has to be about him, then everything has to be either against him or for him.

The real problem for the president is what Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have told prosecutors about what he knew and when he knew it, and this can't be good for him. We already know that Trump lied about his sexual liaisons with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, and generally speaking, when people lie about their affairs, there's usually much more skulduggery in their closets.

The president can call Robert Mueller's investigation whatever he wants, but it looks like Mueller is conducting a sober, thorough, evidence-based inquiry that probably bothers the president because none of those three words describes how he approaches problems. It's usually true that when you don't have the ideas to support you, then you go after the person. That's exactly what's happening here. And if Mueller releases his findings close to the November elections, you'll be able to see the fireworks no matter where you look in the sky.

The storms of September will pass and the country will unite to help people who have lost their homes and their property, and we will mourn those who have died. But there are more storms yet to come before November's election and these will be of consequence for everyone.

If you haven't registered to vote and you still can in your state, then please do. And make sure you vote.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Teachers Need Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Most of the nation's schools are now open and running, but what of education?

Here in New Jersey, and in much of the New York suburbs, the opening week was an exercise in damage control. Most school districts, including mine, that do not have air-conditioning suffered through a terrible four days that saw students and teachers getting sick from the heat and school districts that changed their school's schedules to single session days (there's no such thing as a half-day).

As the climate warms, and it is, these days will become as frequent as snow days are in the winter, and will force all schools to have air conditioning as default equipment. This will cost money that the public will need to contribute in taxes, and with property taxes already high in these states, something else might need to be cut to pay for it.

And just wait until next spring when those of us living in states, where the new tax law limits our ability to deduct some mortgage and home equity loan interest and property taxes, complete our returns and realize that the GOP is fleecing the middle class so that corporations can get their 15% tax cut.

Through all of this, and more, teachers are doing their jobs with tremendous help from...exactly. There is simply no national agenda to improve education other than to cut back on regulations, destroy public unions, promote charter and for-profit schools, private school vouchers, and policies that question the value of what really made America exceptional and great: the public schools. With the GOP in charge, the federal government is abandoning its oversight role and giving the power back to the states to set their own academic requirements, student evaluations and equity policies. While it is true that states should have a great deal of power over their public schools, some states have notoriously low standards, are starving their budgets in order to lower taxes, and are falling short of ensuring that all students are protected by the laws and are provided with an effective education.

And if you thought that last school year's teacher walkouts in Oklahoma and West Virginia were isolated events, then you are in for a shock. I have no doubt that this year will bring more walkouts, more labor disputes, and more civil disobedience. I, for one, am in the mood and I work in a state where the teacher's union is strong and salaries allow for a middle class life.

Which makes this week's weather folly all that much more galling for both students and teachers. Many students, including not only my high schoolers, but children as young as five years old, were in classrooms for hours that registered temperatures in the 90s. If we left these same students in cars with the window cracked a half inch for 15 minutes while we ran into Starbucks we'd be arrested for child endangerment. Our administrators sent us messages thanking us and complimenting us all on being "troopers" and "toughing it out," words that have no place in a school.

I'm a teacher, not a soldier. I don't operate on the front lines, I teach in a classroom. And it's my job to prepare today's students to be tomorrow's leaders. Respect, or get out of the way.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Back-To-School Special: What You Know Beats How You Feel. Every Time.

My school district thought that it would just a fabulous idea to have the faculty report at the end of August, rather than to wait until September as they had for, say, the past 110 years, and to try and mollify us, in addition to giving us something to think about, they contracted with Dr. Robert Brooks and had him deliver a lecture about why it's key that educators create an atmosphere of trust, respect and comfort for our students.

My, what a long sentence that was.

But I digress.

Dr. Brooks's main point was that in order for students to reach their potential as learners, teachers need to provide a supportive, engaging, safe environment in their classrooms. Students should feel welcomed and respected, and they should know that the teacher is going to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, to work through problems, and to fail, as long as we also provide them with opportunities to correct their mistakes. He also spoke at length about creating resilient children who can use their life experiences, temperament and previous knowledge so they can feel successful and confident in their abilities. Much of what he said reflected what many educators learned in the 1980s and 90s through the Madeline Hunter Instructional Theory Into Practice model. Hunter spoke of "feeling tone'" which was a method of making one's classroom into, you got it, a supportive, engaging, safe environment.

This all sounds reasonable, but then Dr. Brooks lost me completely.

On two occasions during his lecture, he stated that "teachers do not teach math, history, science, 2nd grade or 3rd grade." His point was that we should be focusing on how students feel in the classroom and making them feel comfortable and welcomed in school.

I could not disagree more.

From the time I began teaching 35 years ago, I have called myself a "History Teacher." Not Social Studies--History. There's a difference. My view is that students need to know the subject, and through the subject they learn the disciplines inherent in that subject, the different strategies and learning modalities necessary to succeed in that subject, and the facts, arguments and research that informs the subject. It's through the subject that a student finds their level of engagement and interest, and it's up to the teacher to make that subject as relevant to the student as they can. The subject must drive the teacher's approach to education and to their classroom management. In sum, the subject comes first, then comes the environment.

I do agree with every educational theorist on the merits of creating a classroom environment where students feel welcome and safe, and where children know that the teacher can be trusted to provide them with worthwhile activities and information that will allow them to succeed. But we need to do that through our subjects, not first or separate. I want resilient students who can evaluate their own work against a rubric and edit, rewrite or change their minds to make a more cogent historical argument, and I will create a classroom environment that values those approaches.

What Dr. Brooks did not mention was that learning in and of itself is stressful. It's difficult to fit contradictory or seemingly unfathomable facts into your worldview. I will challenge students and ask difficult questions and, at times, make students uncomfortable because that's how you can assess learning. Many times students leave the classroom, and not just mine, without a resolution or with more questions that need answers. And it's all driven by the subject.

What's happened in education over the past 15 years is that educators have been told to focus more on mindsets, resilience and students' emotional concerns at the expense of actually teaching them a body of knowledge. Academic skills have become more important than facts because, after all, if you can learn how to analyze a source, you can do that in every subject, right? The Common Core gets some of the blame because it was a list of skills that students needed to learn. I thought that was great, but the problem was that the skills ate the content. The other problem is the assumption that we are living in a post-fact world because, after all, you can just look it up on the Internet. As a response to that folly, I am actually planning more lessons that don't require students to open their computers.

Teachers must teach their subjects first and foremost and use that subject to create an inviting classroom where students know they can succeed. To my colleagues around the country, I hope that you and your students have a successful year, and that by the end you have students who are both knowledgeable and happy.

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