The following is a republishing of my blog post on The Royal Oak Patch, June 27, 2011
Somewhere through the middle of a week like Joplin I begin to ask myself what I can possibly say to help my students process their experience, to learn from it whatever lessons they most need.
I am a teacher that can be full of lecture; I recognize that. And I know that for most of us, the role of the teacher is to imbue knowledge to young people, to offer them the correct grammar and to help them practice their mathematics. This English teacher corrected no grammar all week.
But I did tell all of the students that they had two jobs: to work and to listen. And, as always, I had no idea how important those simple directions would be. Even having run similar trips before, I did not anticipate the impact they would have on the people of Joplin or on my students. And of such encounters is education made real.
To be sure, our work in Joplin was important. We worked on a total of five different home sites and on Joplin High School, completing work on three of them. Our original goal was to complete two home sites during the week. We were scheduled to work a Salvation Army distribution center all week. We did, but we also staffed the Salvation Army’s “Oasis” tent to help residents apply for FEMA aid. Some of our students created and staffed an impromptu children’s center with coloring books, chalk, and now stuffed animals for each child who arrives. And when time on Friday afternoon ran out, four of our students protested and completed work on our fifth home site in 95 degree heat, even as the rest of us sorted and packed tools.
We did not expect to meet the art teacher whose home was destroyed and yet insisted our students find ways to save materials for re-use by his neighbors. We left the basement of our second site intact, the place where an elderly couple huddled against the storm which flooded them with mud and debris. We met Troy, a local radio DJ, who was so impressed with our work that he bought our group passes to a local fair. We met a man from Washington state who drove down without a plan, just to help.
We could not anticipate the man who would cry on the shoulder of one of our interns, or the woman who begged for simple detergent at the distribution center. (When our students found some, they literally cheered, but such finds were rare.)
We were overwhelmed by the devoted attention of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the local police and media, and dozens of residents to our work. Down the block we saw Americorps volunteers, Samaritans, and even the Kansas City Chiefs working on homes, and it was not enough. Trucks would stop to offer water, snacks, and medical attention.
As freshman Calum carried supplies to the car of one resident, the cascade of thank-you’s made him “feel like a superhero.” As another couple looked on while we dismantled the remains of their home, the words “God Bless you” seemed to them inadequate.
We were forced to turn away some residents asking for aid, perhaps because they did not have their FEMA aid number, or because they could not provide written evidence of insurance or residence status: we learned first-hand about government bureaucracy. We witnessed a dozen trucks through the week scavenging metal; we heard stories of the people of Joplin scammed by con artists looking to take advantage of their plight. We saw the “Tornado Pets” shelter and knew it held hundreds of homeless animals. We were there while the death toll from the tornadoes rose twice more.
We helped children draw pictures of their experience, one boy insisting that we add Transformers to his violent image to stop the tornado from destroying more homes.
Dale from Joplin walked me through the remains of his home as we removed its front wall, showing me the bathroom where he crouched over his 18-month-old grandson, telling him that “If grandpa stopped talking to him, not to worry, because his dad would come home soon.” The ceiling of the bathroom ripped away and water poured across them, but the walls remained.
And so we worked, but we listened.
At our Friday reflection, I had a hard time telling my small stories. But these and others poured out of our students. We write words, sometimes, which are wholly inadequate to the experiences we carry with us.
One of our students said that he did not at the beginning of the week believe his work could mean anything here. Several said they wished they could stay, no matter how sore we all were. Another reminded us that while we were here for a week, the people of Joplin would live like this for many months more. And one said that before this week she had never before felt proud of herself.
Education, I remind myself, the kind that counts, cannot always be measured by an ACT score. And I don’t have to have every answer to the questions of our students’ experiences. All we need to do is open an opportunity for young people to find a genuine purpose in their lives, one that does not require the bribery of a GPA or the distracted rewards of Nintendo privileges. Service to others teaches much of what we need, if we create opportunities for this kind of education.
And, for better and for worse, the world is full of them.
--Steve Chisnell, Advisor, Interact of Royal Oak
- - -
Please find out more about Interact of Royal Oak at our website: www.chisnell.com/interact. There you will find more photos of our work and information on our other projects.
Many thanks go to National Relief Network who organized our work experience, perhaps the only non-profit that works with minors in disaster relief service trips.
And more thanks to editor Beth Valone and reporter Judy Davids of The Patch for this terrific opportunity for my students to reflect through their week in Joplin.
The following is a republishing of my blog post from The Royal Oak Patch on June 18, 2011.
Royal Oak High School Interact members Katherine Visci (from left) and Shamus Carey and chaperone Rayna Ketchum work on a Nashville home damaged by floods in August 2010.
Interact's trip to Joplin, Missouri, will be a unique and powerful experience for us! On Sunday we leave for our fifth disaster relief trip with National Relief Network (NRN), it will be the fastest we have ever responded to a disaster. Interact (youth Rotary) students will work in an area of incredible devastation, perhaps meeting some families who are only now returning to the ruins of their former homes.
We don't know yet all of the work we will do. The Salvation Army has a relief center that is in constant need of help. The American Red Cross is on the ground there. We know that we will work on demolition of structures that cannot be saved, conduct salvage of valuables (both sentimental and material), and clear properties in preparation for rebuilding.
The work will be hot, challenging, but also vitally important both for Joplin's neighborhoods and for our Royal Oak students. As an educator, I can prepare my students for ACT exams, but there are few experiences that are as empowering as literally putting hands on a problem and making that difference. When so many might turn to apathy or worse, our students will be left to their own devices to solve problems in the service of others. It's education in the idea of community.
Our 25 students with five chaperones will meet this challenge, they will be changed by it, and they will do genuine good in the world. I could not be more proud of them.
I do not know what we will meet, even now. I do not know how everyone will react or what they will write on this Patch blog. I do know that we will offer everyone an opportunity to reflect in this space, offer some photos, and share them with so many in the community who have made this trip possible.
Whether it is Skanska for donating hard hats, Royal Oak residents who met our students throughout the community, or anonymous donors who just wished to "make it happen" with dollars, gloves, med kits, and dozens of other items, I would like to personally thank all of you. I wish you could be with us and see the impact of your donations; I hope this blog is a small substitute for that experience.
Follow us here. Find Interact's work on all of our projects, or follow our brief updates on our Twitter feed at twitter.com/schisnell.
What an amazing start to our summer!
Everywhere but my classroom, media literacy dominates the lives of our American (and global) public.
The average college-bound student may read eight books each year, but will read nearly 3000 web pages and 1200 Facebook profiles. Students may write 40 pages of essays, but will write over 500 pages of email messages. They will be online 3 ½ hours each day, listen to 2 ½ hours of music each day, 2 hours on the cell phone and another 2 with television, all while being full-time students with work and study—all multi-tasking. They will have careers that don't exist today which sort of begs the questions of what we are preparing them for. (www.mediatedcultures.net) How will the Scantron help them repair the global problems they are inheriting?
And make no mistake, healthy civic participation (which includes literacy) is what public schools are about. We need our students to be critical participants in the democracy. Of course, this means discussing the Clinton election victories through his work with MTV's "Rock the Vote" in our civic textbooks. Logging on to Obama's YouTube Channel is out of the question; participating in the online forums of the 2008 candidates was disallowed.
In other words, so much of what we do in teaching authentic civic literacy in public schools is to deny access to it.
The concern is simple enough: if we allow minors to go online, they may see images which are scandalous. This is true. Yet two points seem salient, to me: 1) if a student is online, we know their web history and who it was that visited the offensive site. In other words, there is more proof of the offense than was ever true about the naughty deck of cards or offensive note passed; 2) they are seeing it, anyway, and in our classes. Phones and iPods dominate the classroom as do "sexting" and Parental Advisory lyrics.
Our response is to seek it out, try to confiscate the tools for the new literacy, truly an endless and futile task. In other words, we have cast ourselves in the role of censors, compelling 2.0 students into a 1950s-model of literacy. (As I often say to my AP students, we are 21st century readers engaging 17th century texts with early 20th century theory.) So much for relevance.
While the rest of the world is bombarding our students with images and digital pitches, they are often naively vulnerable to its impact. This is not a slam against my students so much as it is a statement that critical literacy, the close examination of digital texts in order to discover their capitalist (or worse) agenda, is absent from our curriculum. Worst of all, rather than help them, we as teachers are often the last they will ever ask about what they encounter—after all, we'll just confiscate whatever they're using.
As a small example, consider the immediacy of digital text in comparison with any other. That is, an unfounded claim goes viral and makes itself news. A recent one is the Facebook Group which claims that the social network site may charge about $4 each month starting in May. Almost 500,000 users joined to protest. Of course, there is absolutely no truth to it: none is offered, none is asked for, and yet FB users leave the service in protest. Consider—how do "innocent" pranks like this one condition, teach, our young people to respond to the next wave of influences? It is in this sense that our youth are vulnerable, that we fail in our responsibility to civic literacy.
While at a recent conference on digital texts and social networks, I was social networking instead of giving the PowerPoint presentation my full attention. Our students use Facebook in our classrooms from their phones and on our school computers through proxy servers (and our tech department spends no small amount of time seeking out the newest proxy server in order to shut it down). One of them showed me a YouTube video on her phone the other day—it was a video linking Heart of Darkness and the TV show Lost. If I was truly a professional, I would have chastised her and taken the phone.
But then, that's what Iran's government has done with the internet there. In the wake of wildly corrupt elections, the protests of the moderate and well-connected youth in that country have continued to swell. They want free and fair—democratic—elections, and they want the world to know it. Rather than allow the protests to be spread, however, Iran has limited internet access—and proxy servers have proven invaluable for video and news to escape, anyway. Even the mullahs cannot stop technology. GoogleEarth shows images of crowds filling the squares of Tehran; the Iranian protests now have their own Channel on YouTube.
As I write this, YouTube celebrates five years of video work today. It is rightly proud of what it has accomplished. More than "Kitten Surprise" or Megan Fox videos, it has in its words, "given people a voice" (http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/), shown us firsthand the need in Haiti, and helped shift the current of a US election. Entire classroom semesters from universities are online in their own channels (YouTube EDU), dozens of news stations host documentaries (including SkyNews, Fox, Al-Jazeerah, Reuters, ChinaTimes, and the CryGuy29)—remember, our goal is not to find a location of only approved digital texts, but to teach how to discern between them. The US President's YouTube channel has nearly 2000 videos on it, including all of his speeches, commentaries, dialogues, and special calls for participation (http://www.youtube.com/user/BarackObamadotcom). (And there are dozens of other politician channels!) Even Angelina Jolie has her own channel of United Nations videos. There are channels for science and math, and there are hundreds of student-produced projects assigned, apparently, by their high school teachers. Other students are vlogging, but I'm not sure that most of us know what this is. And now television programs are being uploaded by the networks that produced them, including Anderson Cooper's 360 and Digital Planet.
The goal of the literate is to use their tools of literacy to forward their critically-considered agendas. Gutenberg did it with a printing press and put the monks out of business. Iranian students are doing it with their Sony HandiCams and YouTube. But for us, Bess won't go there.
Given a chance to re-create the Course Catalog for 2009-2010, and just in time for scheduling day, I offer the following new course proposals for you. Have an idea I forgot? Add it!
Students will spend the semester pondering and arguing the contemporary dilemmas of 21st century America, from gossip to MySpace stories and from cell phone cameras to divided loyalties. Emphasis will be placed upon daily dilemmas facing young Americans but approached from multiple perspectives (i.e. Does downloading illegal music hurt anyone? What about eating a chocolate bar with cocoa from child labor?). Various rationale for actions will be considered, including pragmatism, hedonism, stoicism, altruism, nihilism, egoism, medical and journalistic ethics, business and bioethics, and legal ethics. Students will create a final project which argues an ethical compass for 21st century American values to be published online or in local newspapers and magazines.
Senior students will design their own individual project based upon their college, career, or personal interests. The project will be large-scale, research-based, and involve public performance, publication, or presentation. A student interested in creative writing might produce a portfolio of refined works for publication; an art student might stage a public exhibition; a business student might design an advertising campaign proposal; a robotics student might work to patent a new design; a biology student might design and build a self-sustaining pond for the school; a history student might write a treatise on an event to defend before university professors. The project type and outcome is created and controlled by each student; the instructor guides students through proposals, research strategies and scales, organizing timelines, presentation basics, and arranging audiences.
Students are taught skills of effective leadership from handling group dynamics to organizing projects and from presentation skills to qualities of character, studying effective leaders in history and business. Students will be encouraged to join real world committees and organizations, analyze their dynamics, and effect necessary changes to improve their performance. Organizations might include a local Sierra Club, church youth groups, and honorary School Board seats. Class sessions will include discussions and strategies for improving leadership skills and organizational effectiveness. Skills will not include icebreakers and motivational games.
Global Advocacy 101
Students will learn the complexities of global issues such as gasoline prices, the genocide in Darfur, and terrorism. After each unit, groups will stage public debates, forums, or speeches on aspects of the topics to spread their understanding to the larger public; these will occur through various media such as live staging, WOAK programs, or online blogs and forums. Finally, students will choose a topic of high interest and engage it directly, whether joining activist groups, volunteering for charitable causes, or lobbying for legislative change. Students who bring their own projects to the class through extra-curricular clubs (Model UN, SEA, Student Council, GSA, etc.) may use class time to promote their own activism and earn class credit.
Students will actively engage the wide range of new media in the world to become as literate in technology as they are in reading essays and poetry. Projects would include comparing the impact of novels vs. film renditions, analyzing the impact of FaceBook and MySpace on teen social skills, evaluating online advertising techniques and search engines, investigating "push media," inquiring about mixes and copyright infringement laws, and creating their own digital media such as podcasts and wikis. Students will conclude the class by producing a digital portfolio of their work.
Special Topics in Social Studies
Based upon the popular Middle East History courses, the Social Studies department will offer a series of semesters focusing on the history and contemporary issues of different regions of the world. Topics might include Sub-Saharan Africa, aboriginal life, Eastern Europe after the Cold War, Southeast Asia, Tibet, Michigan history, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. Students will often pair with students and schools in chosen regions of the world to complete joint cultural projects online.
Applied Science / Applied Mathematics
Students involved in the Applied program of science and math will engage skills learned in previous courses to problems to be solved in ROHS and beyond. Groups will conduct investigation in real or simulated projects throughout the semester such as calculating rocket telemetry for model rockets, designing effective climate control systems for frog or fish breeding, re-designing safety lighting for ROHS student parking lots, designing structurally-sound roller coasters, conducting cost-analysis studies of the bussing schedule, analyzing ROHS climate control costs, experimenting with operant conditioning with mice, or designing effective sound-proofing for an audio studio. Projects will change from semester to semester based upon student interest, instructor expertise, and current needs.
Open by application only, advanced art students will propose a major artistic project to change the external or internal face of Royal Oak High School prior to scheduling for the course. If the project is approved by a panel of administrators, students, and community members, the student will select a team to complete the project over the course. This might be a textile mural, a courtyard sculpture, a landscape design, or other project in keeping with the spirit of the ROHS community. The Master Artist will design and oversee the project, delegating the less advanced stages of the work to his or her apprentices.
Sound interesting? But these aren't just my ideas. In different ways, each has been proposed for Royal Oak High School. Sadly, so long as we think only about test scores and teaching inside classrooms, they are not likely to be included in our Course Catalog.
Even so, one of these courses will be offered next year. Model United Nations as a class is Global Advocacy 101. Any student can take it, and you can begin to do your part in changing the world. For the rest . . . ask, demand, argue, compel. Change isn't easy.
I was as surprised as the next guy at seeing a too-familiar phrase on the entryway to ROHS this fall. Sure, there’s still a little sting we feel when we see something which feels uniquely Kimball or uniquely Dondero: three years later, and we still step carefully around each other’s loyalties to nostalgia. More, today I like to think that the sting we feel is because ROHS is ready to become something unique from both those buildings.
And what will that be?
All of us—students, teachers, parents, principals—recognize that we can be more than we are in our post-Skanska semi-renovated space. Why spend so many of our hours, so many of our days, moving through the patterns of routine? Why accept the mundane as the status quo? Some students tell me that they come each day only to wait until that final bell; a good day is when they aren’t noticed.
What is the high school we want? And how can we make it uniquely ours?
I can guess at a few things we might want:
- Hallways we can walk with freedom and enjoyment;
- Classrooms which spur our thinking and teach us what we need to know;
- Sport teams which earn our fandom and support;
- Clubs invigorated by members with exciting and ambitious plans;
- A social scene free of drama and full of friendships;
- A community produced by teachers and students working together to make it happen;
- A school composed of choices;
- A place where we look forward to our days.
Utopian, I know. Naïve, this suggestion that we work together to be happier together.
And yet, as I write, I am watching Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both call for service, for a citizenship which recognizes community. By this, they mean that we commit to something larger than ourselves. They mean that everything we do is founded in a belief that we are building for each other. To me, there can be no more important education, no more important participation in our American democracy.
If ROHS has any kind of unique and positive future for students and teachers, I believe it is in a high school which offers the space for us to create it and re-create it as our passions take us, in a place where we can leave its cinderblock walls and make the world our curriculum.
There is much to encourage me this year:
- We have groups of students traveling to China and Austria; we are about to have a small flood of students from Germany visiting us;
- InterAct is building programs to offer microloans to the developing world; it’s watching Hurricane Ike to see if February will find 100 or more ROHS students helping rebuild Galveston;
- Clubs and classes are working together to create a mock national election which will also offer students a chance to vote on changes to the school;
- Student leaders are meeting together to re-envision how we can help each other;
- Challenge Days continue, reminding us that hugs are not just okay, but necessary;
- Our sports teams are growing, and SuperFans are now tradition;
- Teachers are working with a Code of Conduct to remind us of our roles in treating students with compassion and respect;
- Our principals are willing to say “Yes” to ideas which seek to build community.
Service to community is a unique reward, an idea that we receive what we give. We’ve come from many places and generations to live in a single space during our waking days. What we learn in that space is to leave it with a broader—a greater—idea of who we are: “. . . enter here to learn, go forth to serve. . . .”
In 2002 I earned a Toyota grant to explore Japanese culture and business, part of the inspiration to build a non-Western literature course, among other things. Here is one of the essays I wrote at the end of that trip, appropos today, as well.
Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda said, “Each person should have one great project in their lives.” For us, that project is undoubtedly the education of young people. I know that it has become that for me. So it should be no wonder that his words resonated with me the moment I heard them in Toyota Motor Sales Headquarters in Los Angeles just before we departed for a two week educational tour of Japan this past summer of 2002. And they colored my experiences throughout the journey.
Surely any corporation will put its best face forward, the Japanese hardly the least of them. It’s part of any company’s pledge to become number one in customer satisfaction. It would be easy to discredit the corporate source for its record of isolationism, its lagging record in employing women, its failure to protect standards through the equivalent of an OSHA in Japan, or even in the dangerous metaphor of equating education with manufacturing. Setting aside the genetic fallacy of such a dismissal, ignoring Toyota’s lessons misses the point that it is hardly separate from the culture which produced it, from basic ideas of community and of tradition which pervade Japanese society. Through Toyota we might learn from Japan.
And so, I listened for my great project and found the connections powerful. Jim Press, Executive Vice-President of Toyota Motor Sales in the US, for instance, spoke of approaching three men working with jackhammers and asking them, “What are you doing?” The first answered, “I’m busting rocks.” The second said, “I’m trying to feed my family.” The third said, “I’m building a temple.” What we do is not important for its mundane acts nor its practical results, but for the vision which belongs to each employee, each educator. So what is the vision?
I believe it is in Toyota’s use of an ancient Shinto idea. We are all used to the signs throughout America’s parks and we often quote them: “Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.” The philosophy is one of minimal impact on our environment; we are, in essence, to cause no harm by doing nothing. For Toyota, the philosophy is quite different: “Leave the world better than you found it.”
Fundamental to this idea is vision and the creativity and courage to realize it. And it is this which powers Toyota’s philosophy—more importantly, it might power our own.
Toyota lives a kind of philosophical hybrid of creativity and Quality (in the Demming sense). Its own three C’s are creativity, challenge, and courage. Each are vital to our leaving the world better than before.
Creativity means finding the means for achieving one’s goals: “Before you say you can’t do something, try it!” argued Sakichi Toyoda. It also means that one must overcome obstacles with ingenuity. I am reminded of the story of the shogun who was denied muskets by European traders. He made a guest of a British gunsmith and subverted the aims of those who sought to limit him. That also means, however, accepting challenges that come with the vision.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations balked at fulfilling the Kyoto Protocols on the environment, frankly and openly concerned that to pledge to the internationally-prescribed CO2 levels would impact the US economy. Japan will meet the Kyoto standards by 2005, five years ahead of the recommended schedule. This is due in no small part to Toyota which has marketed ten times more hybrid vehicles than its leading competitor (also Japanese), Honda. Toyota continues to grow Japan’s economy after the Asian financial crisis and, more, will sell its hybrid vehicles to other auto companies to help them also reach the Kyoto standards.
Toyota automobiles recycle more parts than any other automaker, including plastic body sections which are ground up to form new auto bodies. Toyota uses a mixed production line: all models, foreign and domestic, are produced on one assembly line; each car has its own individual instruction sheet. In its drive to produce no defective products, Toyota created the Just-In-Time system, kanban, where parts are replaced for production only as needed. Thus, it is impossible to produce even dozens of defective vehicles because any mistake in product is limited.
None of this would succeed if the company did not also proceed with the courage to trust everyone to its vision. This is jidoka, this is kai-sen, this is the belief that humans can be empowered to think and correct the machine (jidoka) in order to achieve continuous improvement (kai-sen). Many American teachers laughed when we heard in LA that every worker was empowered to stop Toyota assembly if he discovered an error. But touring the Miyamachi Plant in Toyota City, I watched it happen.
Along every manufacturing line is a long, broad, white rope, raised above the workers similar to what one sees on subway cars. If an error is found, any worker might pull the rope and halt the production line until the mistake is corrected. And, while we might have supposed that workers creating such unpredictable stops would be discouraged or even penalized, quite the opposite is true. Stopping the line earns the worker a bonus. On our 45 minute tour of the plant, I saw the line stopped five times, usually just to give the worker more time to complete a task. Toyota seeks employee alerts so that it can make corrections.
Kai-sen means that workers must also have the experience and education to make the right decisions. “Good thinking, good products” is a company slogan. But here is where the links to American education become too plain.
The significance of a vision is equated to experience and to education. Toyota’s employees are trained well. They become experts in a variety of positions, just as any professionals would, and their suggestions are sought as a natural and routine policy. Each shares the vision, is offered the challenge, and courageously steps forward to find creative solutions.
Perhaps this seems a bit heavy-handed for mere factory workers. Certainly other cultural differences between Japan and the United States impact the effect—Japan is not unionized as America is (workers are guaranteed employment), and the Japanese have a stronger sense of community ethic than do Americans, perhaps—but that, too, is part of the lesson for America’s schools.
Education is the key ingredient of community that we as teachers value. It is the “great project” that each of us undertakes. Like Toyota which places 64% of its philanthropy into education, we must recognize that customer (our students) and community (parents and teachers) are linked to the same purpose. In fact, I have just described the Toyota logo.
The “T” link is the relationship between community and customer in a global vision. “Open the window,” says Sakichi Toyoda. “It’s a big world out there!” The only question for us is whether public schools can retain a vision instead of merely break rocks or find motivation in economics. Can public schools as systems find courage to accept the challenge to be creative; can they allow everyone in their inter-connected community to do the same?
Can we keep individualized instruction within single classrooms? Can we work consistently for true Quality or mastery? Can workers ask for and be given the time to do their job well? Can we place resources precisely where they are needed? Can we work as a team for kai-sen? Can we leave the world better than we found it?
Ironically, the Toyoda family changed the name of the company to Toyota for a number of fairly esoteric reasons: the new kanji would use a lucky eight strokes, the name was more aesthetically pleasing, etc. But Toyota is a made-up word. In Japanese it has the rare distinction of being a word without meaning. But I think that is its advantage. For Toyota, there is no denotation which should limit its creativity, there is no closed signifier which prevents change. There is jidoka for kai-sen.
Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to write of New Orleans. Thirty months following the storm, over 4000 homes are still untouched. FEMA trailers are toxic. The media has all but quit talking about it. Brad Pitt builds a few show homes well out of the price range of the area’s residents.
The work Royal Oak High School students did was extraordinary, though only the smallest fraction of what remains; our contact at National Relief Network estimated another 10 years of work at the rate volunteers arrive.
Is the abandonment of full government relief conspiracy? When insurance companies renege on their promises to policy holders, is it deliberate neglect? Is it racism? Prejudice against the lower class?
I won’t pretend that there aren’t individuals who have deliberately exploited the disaster for their own profits. Beyond the looters following the storm, certainly some key decision-makers at local and national levels levered some policies into place to seize properties, to provide funds first to areas of high commerce, to ignore the poorly-defended homeless.
But despite the conspiracy theories and the UK Mirror’s description of America’s “vile underbelly,” I don’t think that is where it went wrong. Somehow worse than any conspiracy is its opposite. Wickedness requires some intent, some premeditation and enough energy and assertiveness to institute it; my suspicion is that much of the post-Katrina recovery failures have more to do with the absence of will and thought.
Mike Schmoker, in his book on school reform Results Now, describes the problem as a “buffer,” a force which prevents anyone from knowing just how bad the status quo is. Thus, there is no impetus for change. He writes, “The status quo gets enormous help from the machinery that creates the illusion of scrutiny and inspection,” creating a “rosy view” while effectively eliminating any feeling of urgency or need (15, 16).
The buffer is standard operating procedure. It is the bureaucracy of getting the job done, the routine of filling forms and working through committee, of “following procedure” as a goal instead of accomplishing justice. Worst of all, it creates in people the idea that mindless duties fulfilled are themselves accomplishment.
Take, for instance, one of the stories of fire chief Ron Silva of Chalmette. In the 100+ degree heat following the storm and lack of power, ice became a vital resource. FEMA truck drivers delivered ice in trucks to the area, but because they were required by policy to return their trailers, they proposed to dump the ice on the street (where it would certainly melt within hours). Silva told them to leave the refrigerated trailers to preserve the ice for several days and then bring a new trailer when they had emptied the first. The drivers refused: to them, thinking—doing what was right—was irrelevant to the more important goal of gathering signatures in triplicate and following orders to protect their status quo jobs. Silva said that it took the threat of a gun to convince them to change their minds.
It creates a kind of linear vision, this buffer, an almost deliberately ignorant perception. If only I do my job, I am blameless, no matter how horrific the consequences of that job.
One might consider the Milgram Experiment, the seeming complicity of citizens in countries guilty of human rights abuses, or a slavish devotion to a GPA instead of to learning.
The local governments in New Orleans say that if the resident is not living on the property, the home—despite its condition or reconstruction efforts—may be demolished. The federal government granted some aid to the uninsured, but nothing for those who were insured but defrauded of their claim money.
The owner of the house we worked on was told by his life insurance company that unless he could provide evidence of his written insurance policy, he would not be covered. Of course, the company was counting on the fact that the elderly victim of a flood-damaged home two years later would never be able to find such a policy. Yes, someone in that company made a wicked decision. More importantly, all the other employees of the company obediently followed it. The paperwork buffer went into operation; the insurance agent need only shrug and say, “I’m just doing my job.” (Our students found the man’s policy in his water-damaged files.)
The hurricane was ultimately inevitable. But for the years and years of levee design and building, the reports which warned of imminent danger, the insurance companies which ruled that a “flood” is not the same as a “wind storm,” the FEMA bureaucracy which made dozens of errors in the weeks following Katrina, the FEMA bureaucracy which still cannot committee its way to a reform, and the politicians which have yet to compel adequate aid to the people of New Orleans, these forces are far more powerful—and perhaps avoidable.
This is why the volunteerism efforts of so many organizations are so important. Our students who raised money, gave up vacation time, and tested their physical limits are the most effective counters to buffers, to false and slavish thinking. No GPA or ACT exam will ever measure it.
This past weekend, oil prices hit $100 per barrel. Undoubtedly, gasoline prices will rise again, too, and the Democratic candidates responded at Saturday’s New Hampshire debates by warning of recession. Even so, the major oil producers of the world don’t seem worried: $100 isn’t high, according to OPEC. They cite increased manufacturing costs and labor costs as reasons.
Oddly, we’ve heard this before. Peter Maas, of the New York Times Magazine, warned a few years ago that prices of even $60 could cause a recession. Inflation being what it is, we can expect that to be adjusted three years later, but I’m surprised that every time I read about peak oil and high prices, a too traditional (and limited) understanding of capitalism seems at work.
Oh no, you say, he isn’t going to write about economics, is he? Actually, yes and no. Oil economics is merely an example of our culture’s limited thinking; it usually misses about 2/3 of the equation.
Every time oil companies discuss costs, they discuss the cost of manufacturing, of drilling, of refining more crude. How often do they discuss the cost of producing raw crude or the cost of its environmental impact?
Here’s some real economics:
Scenario One: Let’s suppose you and a friend are stranded in the desert with no food but a single basket of fruit. How long before you eat your first? You have no idea when (or if) help will arrive. How do you divide the fruit? Do you discuss its use or do you each consume as much as you wish without talking to the other? Do you eat it all at once or do you space out its consumption? Even though you’re in a desert, do you save some seed for potential regrowth?
This is the first third which is missing from our formula. The cost of a barrel of oil never accounts for the price of its natural production. It takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of years to produce (hydrocarbons created from biological products). Since the amount of oil is not limited, how much do we charge for the environmental labor? (Name one craftsperson who does not in part charge for the length of time spent on creation.) I imagine such a commodity would be very valuable.
Scenario Two: You and your friend take a picnic to a state park. You pay the $10 admission and enjoy the afternoon. While there, you leave soda can tops and cellophane scattered about which kills some rare birds. The campfire you leave burning sparks a fire which destroys a few acres before being brought under control. Does the state park hold you responsible and charge you? On what do they base their fine?
This portion is easier to understand. Every time we damage our environment, the degree and duration of the damage must be factored in to the cost. If we knew that you would commit this act every time you entered the park, wouldn’t your admission price go up? (Yes, you would be banned from the park, but banning Exxon from the planet is apparently not an option.)
And yet again, these prices are not figured into gasoline costs, just the middle third, production itself. What is the cost of replacing oil in the ground? What is the cost of repairing the damage done by oil consumption? And—most importantly—if the oil companies are not paying it or placing it in their costs, who is paying for it?
I’m hardly the first to note this, but it’s worth considering for a number of reasons. For me, the most important is that—in terms of economics and even logic—we tend to think in “now” costs, what it costs us today to complete a task.
I eat the candy now without considering the future weight consequences or health costs (or where the chocolate came from); I smoke the cigarette now; I say “plastic” at the grocery store because it’s easier; I even resolve a student discipline issue with a simple “suspension” rather than consider the factors which produced (and will again produce) the behavior or the impacts of what the suspension will cost us in future resentment.
True, this economic framework can be used in many cases, even education. The education debate is focused around what we can do today to make students score higher on tests. Occasionally, we consider the front- and back-end costs as well. Poverty, drugs, and abusive families impact student success—therefore, this is a cost of education production. What can we do to ensure our young people are safe and have what they need before they reach the school? What is the cost of a society which produces high-scoring ACT results but little in terms of job viability? What is the cost of producing a society which devalues art? Which “writes off” some students as drop-outs or, worse, passes them on with diplomas regardless of their literacy levels? These are all costs of education.
We can look at teachers as “Resource Input,” too. What well are we drawing from to find them? What methods do we use to train them, refine them, exploit them efficiently? Why does teaching have one of the highest attrition rates of all careers?
We have two basic choices about what schools will produce: people who contribute to and enhance the world (which means better resources to draw from later) or people who thoughtlessly consume and even damage it. This means looking seriously at what “enhancing the world” might mean. It doesn’t mean merely “finding a good job in society” or “getting into college” (which is merely a deferment of the question to a later institution).
The answer we’ve chosen so far is fairly clear. We ignore 2/3 of the economics framework and pay only $3.00 for our gasoline today. Let tomorrow’s students worry about the later cost.
I’ve been asked often enough what teaching philosophy I hold, what literary criticism, pedagogy, or politics I subscribe to. Recently I’ve been compelled to articulate this philosophy in a short essay for an audience outside of the school. Here is a draft excerpt on “Why I teach.”
- - - - -
As a teacher, I'm not interested in just reproducing class after class of graduates who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them. What we must do--whether we teach or write or make films--is educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.
I came to a realization many years ago, in my first years of teaching at the urbanized Oak Park High School. As the young idealist with Madeleine Hunter and ITIP in hand, I simply knew that my techniques would inspire. While I don’t equate idealism with naïveté, these two were definitely paired in those early years. I spoke of the American Dream (for that was the curriculum of my American Thought humanities course) to these students who steadfastly and dutifully (but never intrinsically) absorbed art, history, literature, and philosophy as if from a foreign land. They were angry, and while I grew to recognize that anger, neither they nor I could find the language to articulate it, to work with it. The wake up call for me was a Sociology student of mine from The University of Michigan whom I tutored: “Have you ever grown up in the ‘hood?” he yelled that afternoon as he threw a chair across the table. I needed to offer my students a language to understand their consternation; I had to learn that language.
My graduate level studies were my effort to articulate that need. And I realized that my English and Government certifications were not adequate to the task. Media Analysis, Anthropology, Written Communication & Rhetoric, and Comparative Politics became instruments for change. I teach now what is sometimes termed a social-epistemic rhetoric. That is, I teach students in every class—history, politics, literature, writing, and speech—that knowledge is socially-constructed and that we are strongest as citizens when we understand how that knowledge is built, when we learn to speak a language which reflects it, and when necessary for civil discourse, deconstruct it.
Anyone who says that our youth today have no interest in politics, in society, in what America is or should be, has not truly engaged them in discourse. The disenchantments we see, the apparent apathy, the anger, comes, I believe, from a lack of civic literacy, from an absence of tools they may use to take the world apart and understand its absurdities, from a sense of powerlessness to change them.
So my idealism is not dead, but it no longer comes from Hunter or the latest acronym-laden methods book, and I hope with some humility that it is not quite so naïve. It is, however, colored by a demand that my students and I engage fully what we encounter. It happens when my students discuss Heller’s Yossarian, recognizing that man without spirit “is garbage,” when they make speeches about the moral and pragmatic grounds for adopting a child from Ethiopia, when they write about how technology’s accelerating pace carries the consequence of robbing us of the time for reflection, of how and why India’s unlikely democracy has more good faith support than Florida’s, of whether Nigeria’s “chop-chop” politics is more or less corrupt than our Enron directors. It happens when my students meet directly with the Sudanese ambassadors to the United Nations, debate the US State Department’s Iraqi desk in their offices on US policy, sit amongst farmers from a dozen developing nations in Costa Rica to discuss GMO subsidies and labor rights, travel to New Orleans to help find homes for those forgotten or eat alongside our Detroit homeless and discuss the future of the city; it happens when they meet in Helsinki with the new EU president to discuss the virtues of democracy and Turkish membership, it happens when they consult with the Nicaraguan consulate on issues of nuclear policy and are invited to submit their reports to its government. It happens when, in 1999, they debate with 200 like-minded students on saving Kosovo without the use of force, forge a solution, cheer jubilantly, and then turn on the news that evening to find that NATO has begun to bomb the region. It happens when they stage a school walk-out to protest a principal’s ban on trench coats following Columbine. It happens when they sob over a loss in a local political campaign where they volunteered countless hours. And it happens when they speculate on the impact of a seemingly innocent fairy tale on children or wrestle in on-line discussion over the motives behind a 17th century poem.
Yesterday, one of my students offered me a now more common lament: that, having rejected CNN as a source for news and finding it difficult to discover credible sources for the slow-growing democracy movement in Iran, she could find no one to talk to anymore. Her eyes wider, she began to look with disdain upon the mass of Americans who could only follow the latest jean styles and Brad Pitt gossip. And so we talked of Hamilton, and whether or not the American Dream could be found through intellectual elitism.
At some point, and here are those moments of teaching miracle which I still stumble into more often than craft, the final shift for them is to see that their awakening to our culture’s work upon us is a responsibility as well: it calls upon them to provoke that understanding in others. It asks them to “talk back.”
And so we talk of literacies. What language allows us to speak back to a society which insinuates itself into the consumer mind? I’ve often felt that control of language is control of perception. The richer our writing, the more powerful our thinking. The broader our vocabulary, the more we know. How can we utter an idea for which we have no word? How can we speak back to a culture if we are made mute? Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that knowledge itself resides within discourse. A single voice knows only its limited self; multiple voices reveal the complexities of the world.
What is my vision for the high school? Merely that it be the center of a positive, critical, and democratic activism to better the local and global community through genuine success in arts, academics, and athletics.
Predictably, some of my greatest challenges are in combating the social forces which seek to derail student thinking. Substance abuse, in particular, damages or destroys student focus on their own educational success; it short-circuits their critical thinking skills, even while deceiving them into believing the opposite. I have taught students who have raped and been raped, had abortions and miscarriages, burned out their brains and nervous systems on hard drugs, killed themselves and been killed by others. The causes of these abuses to young people inevitably are drugs and the influence of a media-culture which perpetuates sexism and violence as normal. It asks students to believe that selfish and even self-destructive behavior is acceptable and even preferred. Untrained minds unwittingly accept the messages. Too often, all I can do for students who start to lose control is keep my door open to them when they need it.
Earlier this summer I offered a proposal for a number of changes to enrich ROHS school climate. Here is one in summary:
Activate a student court to address non-disciplinary issues between students. There are several models to build from. Recommend: three justices and two secretaries per case to hold cases during lunch periods. Verdicts would be in the form of restitution (reparative and restorative justice), service, opinions, or referrals to administration. Contempt would become a disciplinary issue.
I thought I would develop this a bit today and offer us all a chance to discuss and develop it into a formal proposal if it has enough support.
Goals and Rationale
Student courts are hardly new. They have existed at the college level for decades, less frequently at high schools. The goal is simple: help students set up a common expectation for community behavior in larger schools through discussion and judicial debate. And one thing ROHS needs, I believe, is a common understanding of acceptability.
Student behavior codes can be achieved in two ways. The first is traditional: administrators can design and implement a code of conduct, and teachers and administrators can be tasked to enforce it. The second is for such a code to be developed from the community of students itself, working in collaboration with the teacher/administrative community. The first method almost always leads to an adversarial relationship: students are disempowered and told to follow the rules.
Some guidelines are in order, however. First, some disciplinary issues are clearly outside the purview of student responsibility. Criminal cases, for instance, should remain with the police component. Issues of physical fights and the like should, perhaps, be left with administrators. Even so, there are myriad disputes between students which 1) go to administrators to resolve which ends us escalating the problem with punishments; 2) never go to administrators yet are important and unresolved conflicts which could use some arbitration.
The student court would hear all cases where all parties have agreed to comply by its rulings in advance. Contempt of court or refusal to comply by its rulings would mean a referral to administration, itself a punishable offense. We would have to revise the current Student Code of Conduct to reflect this. In other words, if a student elects to have her case heard by the court, a later refusal to abide by its ruling is itself punishable.
Further, the types of arbitration and resolution possibilities should be limited to a philosophy which promotes a better environment for students. I foresee a few possibilities:
- Actual “trials” with a limited number of jurors for issues where guilt is uncertain;
- Hearings and arbitrations with three students justices for minor matters;
- Advisory Panel discussions to determine general policy and building management recommendations.
Consequences and Rulings
Finally, the types of consequences a student court would be empowered to implement would be limited.
Justice can be forward-looking or backward-looking. That is, we can work to make things better in the future, or work to punish what was done in the past. Vengeful of Punitive styles of justice are generally backward-looking and I cannot see how using them would create a credible reputation for the court. Therefore I think the best types of justice for a student court would be restorative, reparative, rehabilitative, or even working to seek forgiveness.
A student court would more likely seek to have a destroyed bulletin board put back in order by the vandal than simply suspend him (reparative over punitive). A student court would more likely recommend a mini-course in sexual harassment for a student rather than give detention (rehabilitative over punitive). A student court would more likely see feuding friends reconciled through an objective and fair arbitration than ignore the problem or impose a detention (reparative vs. . . . irrelevant).
The Student Court could offer four kinds of rulings, I think:
- Restitution rulings (reparative or restorative justice)
- Service requirements (reparative or rehabilitative justice)
- Opinions—which would be passed along to appropriate administrators around issues of building policy and the like. These would be advisory, though, as other stakeholders (teachers, parents, and insurance agents!) would have a say as well.
- Referrals to Administration – where the case escalates into matters beyond its jurisdiction.
Other issues would need to be discussed. Training and elections of justices; roles of advisors; appeals processes; court proceedings; teaching the student body about it; locations and times of the court, alignment with administration and police, counselors, and teachers; and the inevitable question of whether staff could be called before it (this does not happen even in college student courts because there are legal implications of it).
However, I believe that a student court could be one (and only one) method of building a community of expected behaviors for students different from impositions of policies. Imagine opinions published on cell phone use, arbitration around pre-Powderpuff pranks and vandalism, or rulings on harassment.
If there is enough interest, maybe someone will put it forth as a formal proposal. . . .