The Surreal Real: Coming to Terms With President Trump

November 12, 2016

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Three days later and I’m still reeling. Three days of numerous stunted conversations with both friends and strangers, all replete with pauses and head shaking and holding up of hands, all ending with words neither illuminating nor comforting. The fact, like the sudden death of a friend, is too brutal for either. The unspeakable has been spoken. Loudly. Across the nation and the world. By tens of millions of my fellow citizens. It brings a sense of profound dislocation, a shattering of one’s sense of reality, a confirmation of one’s worst fears about our own nation. A FDNY friend calls and tells me he has not felt this sense of loss since 9/11 when scores of fellow firemen perished beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers. Another, older friend compares his feelings to those he felt on and after November 22, 1963.
Suddenly, overnight, the horribly surreal is all too horribly real and will remain real for years.

I find myself asking, where the hell am I? Is this the country of my birth? Yes, it is. And most resoundingly, no, it is not. Something has changed. Something primal and riddled with inchoate rage and violence, something that has been growing for many a year, has been revealed. And no event in my life has made that revelation more horribly obvious than the stunning election of Donald J. Trump, a man who has never lifted a finger for anyone other than himself, a man who embodies all that is debased, degenerate, degrading and dangerous in American culture, to nothing less than the presidency of the United States. And this at a hour when, due to the machinations of G.W. Bush and the connivance of Barack Obama, the powers of the presidency have been expanded and enlarged more than any time in American history. The event is singular in its indictment of both the American people and the American political system, particularly the Democratic Party , that pushed such people to such desperate measures.
I never watch TV news and I find myself obsessed with watching TV news, as if I somehow need visual verification that this event has actually happened and I am not, in fact, hallucinating. And there it is: Donald Trump, the same man who spoke of grabbing pussy and banning Muslims and building a wall to keep out Mexicans, is sitting in the Oval Office with Barack Obama preparing to take it over. There is Donald Trump, the same man who cheered on spectators attacking protesters at his rallies and bragged about not paying taxes, being led by Speaker Paul Ryan to the spot at the Capital where in 70 days he will take the oath of office. Meanwhile, the talking heads speak of Trump’s cabinet, naming Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, all of whom four days ago were punch lines.

Reeling.

I am trying to come to terms with the fact that this obscene and sickening narcissist, a man who has never spent five minutes in public service, this scamming, hustling, Reality TV personality, will be leading my nation, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, and I cannot.
And yet I must.
More, as significant as the political aftermath are the cultural effects, which for many supporters of the president –elect means instant legitimization of the basest of human impulses: racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti LGBTQ,, anti any and all progressive movements. Indeed, as reports of high school students chanting “white power” and “Build the wall” filter in, such horror has already begun. Certainly, white supremacists, who loudly made their presence felt at his rallies across the nation, are rejoicing in the ascension of this grotesque man.

Still, as with any violent and traumatic attack on one’s sense of reality, the mind in time fights back because it must fight back. It would be absurd to look for silver linings in this darkness but perhaps, perhaps, perhaps with enough work there will be opportunities, which are a very different thing.

Perhaps there will at last be widespread recognition of the immense political betrayal of working class Americans by the Democratic party, especially under Clinton: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the laws that led directly to the mass incarceration of millions, mostly African Americans, and above all, the political apotheosis of Wall Street. All of this continued unabated under Bush and Obama, all of it that has led directly to the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest hands in modern times and the simultaneous immiseration of millions of Americans, now so crazed and hopeless that enough of them seek salvation in the absurd and vicious promises of a billionaire con man with no political experience or knowledge of governance whatsoever.

I have in my travels over the past few years met and spoken with some of these people, formerly working class and now called the “precariat “ as their lives have become so precarious. Former members of the Democratic party, one and all, formerly well employed, now forgotten and seething in their hollowed out cites and towns which no killer app can save for the simple reason that no killer app was meant to. I have felt their volcanic anger and their completely justified sense of primal betrayal and it was frightening. Yet I did not see this coming.

What to do ? What to do ?

I do not know.

What I believe is this: The election of Trump is an unprecedented political and cultural disaster demanding unprecedented political and cultural responses — chief among the latter, solidarity and decency and kindness which in an age of casual cruelty take on radical proportions. Protests have begun. May they continue and grow and grow and grow. Mass civil disobedience on a scale never before seen in America may be our only hope. There is nothing that would please the powers that be more than violence as it would be instantly and indefinitely used to justify massive police oppression.
Whatever we do may we have the wisdom to do it right.


A 150 Mile Journey For Justice: 10 Years after Legal Decision, Billions Are Still Owed New York State Schools

October 2, 2016

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Parents, students, teachers and elected officials gathered together in downtown Manhattan this morning at a press conference before some of the participants began a 150 mile walk to Albany to demand the payment of billions of dollars New York State owes their schools. The protest pilgrimage called “EdWalk2016” commemorates the ten-year anniversary of the decision
reached in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case that directed New York State to adequately and equitably fund poor school districts. During the same decade, the New York State has implemented draconian “reform” after draconian “reform,” such as ever changing and incomprehensible teacher evaluations linked directly to ever more difficult student tests.

On Broadway

On Broadway

Former NYC Councilman Robert Jackson

Former NYC Councilman Robert Jackson

I met the marchers in Times Square.

Bringing the word to  Times Square

Bringing the word to Times Square

“We have teachers from Buffalo, Schenectady, Syracuse, Westchester County, Long Island, and every part of New York city. Twenty-three of us are walking to 153 miles to demand the $3.9 billion that have been denied our students and our schools,” said special education teacher Henry Montalto, one of the walkers.

Pilgrims-teachers Mindy Rosier and Henry Montalto

Pilgrims-teachers Mindy Rosier and Henry Montalto

The protest is organized by the Alliance for Quality Education.


Cycling the Erie Canal

September 4, 2016

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For me, there are few things as invigorating as a long, quiet bike ride through a place in which natural beauty intertwines with both history and the daily life of town and city dwellers; few things I enjoy more then the contemplation and kind of moving meditation such journeys allow and invite. The Erie Canal bike trail offers them all in abundance if you want them and as the summer nears its end, I was fortunate enough to, once again, experience them.

And very happy I did.

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Predictably, Trump signs were abundant, especially in the small towns. Indeed, it seemed to me the more economically devastated the town, the greater the number of Trump signs. I engaged, in fact, in a few conversations over coffee with various Trump supporters that echoed the utter incoherence of Trump himself, minus the man’s viciousness.

So it goes.

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To give perspective to America 2016, to Trump and Clinton and all they embody, at the Jesuit shrine in Auriesville, I visited the graves of two recently departed friends to whose lives and teaching I am forever grateful and whose radical humanity I think of daily.

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And daily was the green and the silence. And daily was the water.

Flowing.

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Bloomberg’s Appearance at the DNC Makes a Mock of Bill Clinton’s Ode To Hillary

July 27, 2016

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For those who were moved by Bill Clinton’s touching if highly sanitized and edited
paean to his wife last night – the man is very, very good at this kind of thing – you would do well to note today’s key note speaker: former NYC Mayor, multi billionaire, union busting and super neo-liberal Michael R Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s political beliefs were most clearly articulated when, through a combination of ruthless employment of the machinery of state, his own immense fortune and an ever expanding host of non-profit organizations serving as mercenaries of the super rich, he purchased a one time only third term as Mayor by corrupting a spineless City Council into allowing him to do so. And this despite two referendums against third terms.

At this point, Bloomberg’s appearance is strange by any normal standards in so far as, like Donald Trump, the man has shown zero allegiance to any political party, moving from Democrat to Republican to Independent depending on how such affiliations benefit Mike Bloomberg at any given moment. And it is particularly note worthy in light of Bill Clinton’s repeated and highly dubious characterization of Hillary Clinton’s history and career as a “builder from the bottom up” and the like.

Bloomberg epitomizes the oligarchic America which Sanders railed against and which Hillary skillfully avoids acknowledging. As NYC mayor, Bloomberg spent 12 long, miserable years expending enormous amounts of energy and money while doing his very best to simultaneously destroy the United Federation of Teachers and privatize the public school system. He failed in both attempts, but the damage he inflicted on students and teachers is immeasurable and still very much present.
Bloomberg spent 12 years doing all he could to remake New York in his image, a desire he shares with his fellow billionaire and would be president Donald Trump. Indeed, Bloomberg is, in many ways, like Trump if only with more cunning, less public vulgarity and with a complete absence of Trump’s phony populism.

I will admit that I was shocked to read of Bloomberg’s appearance at the DNC, even as I am fully aware of what a sham and a fraud the whole circus truly is. Still…Michael Bloomberg? And yet, the more I think of it the more it makes perfect sense. If nothing else, Bloomberg’s appearance reaffirms how ever so close and ever so horrific our two parties have become and will remain until a real alternative is forged.


The PARCC Test: Exposed

May 14, 2016

Reposted in support of the anonymous teacher who brought this continuing travesty to light, in support of Professor Celia Oyler and in the name true educators and true education everywhere.

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.
I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?
There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.
The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate
In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.
A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]
The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).
Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?
So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.
Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1
Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.
7. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”
Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.
The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”
However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]
The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2
Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.
Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.
It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”
In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.
However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3
25. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.
Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.
Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)
Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.
Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)
So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.
We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.
In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.