Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Land of Journalists

            The president of the United States has taken the additional step of calling journalists “sick people” who “don’t like our country.” He has continued to use the term “fake news” to describe the reporting being done about him. He is encouraging supporters to turn their backs on American journalism as we know it.

            This is important to note, and important to refute, no matter what one’s political views might be.

            The role that journalism has played in American history is profound and in many ways as important as the role of government itself. Strong investigative reporting has repeatedly led the government to make critical changes that benefit the American public – at the federal, state and local levels. We would be nowhere near the country we are today without the work of our most skilled reporters.

            There are several biased news media outlets in existence today, especially on TV and on the internet. There also are several examples of fictional news, particularly from the entrepreneurs who are crafting false stories online in order to gain income from the ads sold on their much-read and much-shared websites. These businessmen know that their false, highly partisan stories will be retweeted and shared without many folks checking the facts. This is the true “fake news,” and it’s being created by people with no journalism background.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Teacher's Take on Charlottesville

           Like most Americans, I have had many thoughts and concerns over the past day and a half, after learning of the violence and murder connected with yesterday’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. I pray for those who have died and been injured, and for all who are diligently working toward a country that prizes the acceptance and equality that our Declaration promises.

            But as someone who often seeks out the difficult questions, I have to raise this one: What if I had a student who was one of those alt-right marchers yesterday? Or what if I had a student who was a vocal sympathizer of their cause? As I type these words, I am seeing a Washington Post article in which a history teacher of the young man who ran his car into a crowd yesterday said the young man had expressed white supremacist views in school.

            This is a tough call for any teacher. Teenagers don’t respond well to shaming and being told what to think. So while I strongly hope that those who marched or spoke out for white supremacy will take on new points of view, I don’t think it will happen because they’re told they are wrong. Only through educated dialogue will teens and young adults feel empowered to change their minds, through their own volition. If I started a conversation with a student who had alt-right tendencies, it would be essential that I let him or her know that I was listening.

            But I’d also take steps to ensure that this student – along with all of those in my class – hears and considers other points of view. The decisions teachers make on reading materials, conversation format and class environment all can play an essential role in this. Teens pay close attention to the opinions of their peers, so it’s important that classroom dialogue on controversial issues be thoughtful and respectful. The classroom also provides a kind of structure that social media does not. So while this student would likely have had many online debates with others already, the classroom and a teacher’s own experience facilitating discussions would likely be a welcome change for the student and for those who disagree with him or her.

            Before class, I’d reach out to that student’s guidance counselor to see what was happening in other classes and in the hallways, to try and get a sense of what that student was experiencing in all the other periods of the day. I wouldn’t duck the topic in class if I learned that he or she was being shamed out loud and on social media; I’d just alter the tone of how we discussed it.

            When it came time for dialogue, the goal would simply be for us to read, think deeply, and converse. I would seek out a variety of reading materials, from the Declaration and Fourteenth Amendment to the facts about what happened during the march, to excerpts from different opinion pieces on the issues at hand. I’d seek out diversity in the persuasive writing, perhaps sharing Michael Eric Dyson’s New York Times op-ed piece on repeating America’s history of bigotry, while also selecting The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s piece on the dangers of identity politics. We’d have a lot to talk about, and I’d make sure that students had the chance to read, write down their thoughts, share with a partner, talk in small groups, and eventually discuss with the larger class. Critical conversations like this require teachers to ensure that every student feels heard, and going straight to a full class discussion will likely turn into a debate among the three most extroverted students in class, while the rest squirm uncomfortably.

            I can’t promise that any class conversations will change this student’s mind. I can promise that I would follow up with one-on-one conversations that are respectful and offer another ear as this student considers his or her point of view. I’ll never forget the interview Michael Moore conducted with singer Marilyn Manson in Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine. When Moore asked Manson what he would say if he could have a conversation with the two boys who massacred their schoolmates at Columbine High School in 1999 or with the community members, Manson answered immediately: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” he said. “I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”

            We want our young people to develop into responsible citizens who care deeply about their fellow men and women. When we sense that this is not happening, it’s of great concern. Educators in particular can feel a heavy responsibility to help make things right. The question they face is how to address a student’s concerning behavior without losing that student’s trust and respect. I can only imagine the guilt that the Ohio history teacher must feel over what more he could have done to help this young man reconsider his views. In essence, he may have done all he could. But he’s not seeing it that way right now.

            “This was something that was growing in him,” the teacher told The Post. “I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

If there’s one takeaway for teachers, I think it might be to head directly toward those difficult topics. Sure, the class might be less controversial if we avoid it. But our children, our society and our country sorely need respectful conversations about the issues that matter. Teachers have the opportunity and skills to lead these talks. Let’s not waste it. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Tree Stump Summer

           We can turn on the cable news channels. We can scan the internet. We can read the papers, listen to the radio, and scroll through the barrage of tweets, posts and snaps.

            In this age of information overload, the messages before us exceed the time we have available. With that in mind, another option beckons: Walking outside, starting an outdoor project, and letting the world come to us.

            For the past few weeks, I’ve spent a number of days standing on the hill in front of my home, trying to take down a tree stump that’s been in place since we had our giant oak tree removed four years ago. The stump was four feet tall from the front, and at least three feet in diameter (I forgot to measure before I started hacking away at it).

            I have pretty bad allergies, so a chain saw was not in the cards for me. And as a teacher who isn’t working this summer, I didn’t want to spend more money hiring someone to do the work. So I gave it a shot, and used all kinds of tools – an ax, a hatchet, a sledgehammer and wedge, two handsaws, a shovel.

            Call me what you wish – stubborn, na├»ve, a glutton for punishment. Guilty as charged on all accounts. But I can tell you that in my days chipping away at this stump, I learned some cool things about the world, from a different angle.

            Up on the hill that fronts our house, I was visible to all who passed by. As a result, many people had things to say from the road and sidewalk. First there were the people on my block – the next-door neighbor who told me I had no chance of getting that down, then gave me an ax to borrow when he saw I wasn’t giving up. The other next-door neighbor who offered me burgers from her grill. And the neighbor who walked by with his dog and said, “If you need a real ax, let me know.”

            As laborers passed by during the day, some wanted to chat. There was the Verizon man who stopped his truck in the middle of the road and told me I’d be there for 30 years. There was the man walking home from work who shook his head, looked over his shoulder and said, “Three years, man.” The trash collector, public-works truck driver, and landscaper all had advice as well, and the landscaper handed me his business card.

            The mailman would tilt his head, study the stump and give me some feedback each day – “It looks a little different today,” he’d say, or “I think you should carve the presidents into that.” He said if it were his to do, he’d have tied a chain to the tree and the bumper of his car, started the car, then watched the bumper fall off and onto the street.

            My most insightful conversation was with Pierre, a neighbor I’d never met who was born in France in the 1930s and also lived in Italy before moving to America. He told me about harvesting sugar beets in the south of France so that he and his dad could afford a new wood-burning stove. He said that in Italy after World War II, cutting down wood for your stove took a unique twist. Explosives were easy to come by, Pierre said, so his dad would blow up a tree and bring the wood home. I told him about the World War II novel I was reading, All the Light We Cannot See, and we talked about how difficult life was during that time.

            Some passersby just gave me encouragement as they walked with friends, family, or on their own for exercise. After a number of days, drivers started honking their horns or calling out from their cars. The next-door neighbor who had first discouraged me had become a full-fledged color commentator, chiming in about the difference he saw each day while telling me I have a job waiting for me when he finally starts the landscaping business he hopes to get off the ground.

And it wasn’t just people I encountered: The plethora of organisms I saw in the tree and soil, and the mulch I created and used, told me volumes about the environment. The shadows and sun angles helped me tell time without a watch or phone nearby. The glass bottle pieces, blue button and old-school aluminum can tab I dug up from the soil offered a glimpse of consumer product evolution. And the iPod I hooked up to a speaker taught me that outdoor work is best suited to the music of Prince and Queen.

            After more than 20 lawn and leaf bags had been filled, and more than 50 hours had been spent on the tree, I still had the solid core of this stump left. Pierre hopped up on the hill and tried to help me some more, but he could see how hard this wood still was. I dug down below the roots, called the company that had cut down our tree to begin with, and got a reasonable estimate for sawing off the rest of the stump. When the mailman passed by, he said, “I’m just remembering, I was 18 when you started this.” We laughed, and that sealed the deal. Time to stop.

                I’ve got other things to do in the second half of summer. The tree man will arrive next week with a chain saw in hand. But after two years of nonstop educational leadership college courses and a very busy year of teaching and newspaper advising, I sorely needed some time away from the laptop this past month. Manual outdoor labor was a good release, and I enjoyed my transcendental July.

            And while I was outside, I took in more than just the sun and the chirping of birds. I listened to people as they gave me advice, told jokes, and shared stories. It felt a little bit like that oldest form of media – word of mouth. I didn’t learn more about health care or immigration or foreign policy outside this summer. But I connected with others, and learned from them.

            When I had finished digging yesterday, I took a couple of photos – perhaps the first “stump selfie” in history – and put away the tools. I felt good about stopping, but also felt a pang, as though I might miss this a bit.

            But no worries – once the stump is gone, there’s dirt to fill in, and ground cover to plant. I’ll be back out there again. And I’ll be ready to talk and listen.