On Staying Relevant, Politics, and Opinions in the Classroom

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of my high school as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staffmembers? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of my high school as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staff members? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

Defining Literacy Today

While reading through my education-related feeds, I came to an interesting post on “The English Blog” written by Jeffery Hill. He teaches overseas and blogs about learning, writing, and speaking English. I do not deal as often with learners of English as a second language, but his post brought up an interesting point. His quote from a local radio program got me thinking:

“The ABCs are apparently no longer as easy as 1-2-3. Recent federal studies indicate that the average American teenager’s vocabulary is less than half that of the average teenager in the 1950s.”

This comment made me recount my recent lessons in English literacy through my undergraduate and graduate studies at Missouri State. Naturally, I read the post carefully a few times again and composed a response to outline my thinking:

“I think the valuable question we need to ask ourselves here is, “how important is knowing specific words to literacy?” Does knowing what “abscond” means help people to do business better? Does understanding what “ad hoc” means help you write a better poem or essay? Communication and composition are specific only to the environment that their authors occupy. People learn what they need to in order to accomplish their goals. If teens today know less words than their parents, then is it a crisis or a sign of shift in literacy? Maybe this generation is redifining the word.”

After I posted my reply, I sat back in thought. Did I really think that a lack of vocabulary represented a shift in literacy or was I simply playing devil’s advocate to this easy-to-accept commentary on the lazy youth and their social media addiction? What research could I find to support my statement?

I turned to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his best-selling book on cultural literacy in America. In this book, he has lists of words, dates, and phrases that “literate” Americans should know. Do you know the significance of 1066 CE? How about absolute zero or amicus curiae? These are supposed to be common terms that Mr. Hirsch requires of you. Maybe you happen to know when the Battle of Hastings was because you were a history or an English major in college, or because you were on the quizbowl team in high school, but otherwise why should you know it?

Of course, I would tell you that learning about the importance of historical events would enrich your life. If you know that the Normans defeated the English in 1066, then you may come to learn that this military event changed the face of the English language forever. Many of the French words present in our vernacular today were introduced by good ol’ Billy Conqueror via the sword and arrow.

That being said, would you really say to someone who didn’t know the significance of this date, “I’m sorry, but you are illiterate” ? I hope not. What kind of message would that send to people? I think Hirsch has only the best intentions in mind as he writes that you should know what “aeschylus” means. He is saying that you should want to be smarter (and I agree). He says only 2/3 of our society (in America) is truly literate. Is there really a “network of information that all competent readers possess” or is literacy something more than common or shared knowledge?

I think that literacy has more to do with conveying and understanding ideas than with specific words, phrases, or concepts. If you don’t understand covalent bonding or absolute zero, but you can define curricum vitae and synecdohe, are you more or less literate than a person who can do the opposite? It sounds like the first person teaches science and the second English, but I would say neither are illiterate for having very specific gaps in their knowledge.

While it would be wonderful if we could count on every American to be able to discuss the importance of stereoisomers in optical science upon pulling out a pair of sunglasses, I don’t think it’s necessary to be considered literate. For most of the third of America that Hirsch sees as illiterate, I would imagine their chief concerns are more to do with basic needs than their intellect.

Hirsch has a lot of great data to back up his thoughts on literacy, and I agree with a lot of it, but he uses a lot of anecdotal evidence too, like in the introdcution. Ben Stein recalls his experiences with California high school students, claiming that in many years not one has ever been able to tell him the dates of any US war, any of the first ten presidents, or where Chicago is. I find that very hard to swallow. As a teacher in a sub-rural Missouri public high school, I could easily find ten students in five minutes who could answer all three of those things clearly.

There is validity to the arguments though. Students are pump and dumpers when it comes to reading, learning, and testing. Students usually can’t tell you who that World War I started in 1914, or 1917 for the US involvement, because they only chose to remember it for “the test.” It is the challenge of the teacher to help students build knowledge connections so retention of information is easier. I think Hirsch comes to this point as well, that of making connections. I think we’re starting on opposite ends of the same spectrum though. He gives a determined set of information that people need to digest to be literate–a product to be obtained–while I think the process is where literacy is built.

Design, a Path to Identity

Steve J. Moore

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

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Design begs for authenticity

Today, you hear a lot about the importance of branding, in the online world. Whether you’re selling T-shirts for your band, writing Op-Eds for a periodical, or mocking up websites for photographers, you are aware of the idea of brand control and its potential impact. Business owners need to be sure that the products they put out are consistent with their plans for objectives as a company. It is the same in education; a teacher needs to be consistent in his or her message to the class about his lessons. If the rules appear to change for no reason, then you lose credibility. You lose your audience. Such is the purpose of design, to help you communicate your brand’s message clearly. But how does good design contribute to your objective? Isn’t such a thing as ephemeral as “design” only a subjective screen covering a person’s idea? How does good design help define who you are as a professional?

These are all questions with dangerously simple answers. They are questions specific to expression, that we all think we understand. The truth is, the ideas of design and expression boil your idea, your product, or your company down to one thing: Identity.

Being the good little scholar of literary concepts that I am, I naturally connect this concept which some may see as strictly economic, like “branding,” or rooted in art, like “design,” as a question of narrative importance. Design is all about who you are; it’s all about building, maintaining, and sharing your identity. So design becomes much less murky if you know who you are (or who/what you are representing). That’s simple, right!? Dang, that’s two posts in a row an interrobang could have come in handy. Sure it’s simple. Just open your chest up and look inside. Pop the hood. Crack open the server case. Read your old book-jacket cover. Well, if only life came with instr–resisting the urge to use cliche–if only, people were so simple, so static…

If design is inherently connected to identity, then marketers had better get on the couch and start self-discovering. Building web pages, you hear a lot about optimization through the use of “meta tags” that mark your domain with keywords. Looking at the word  “meta,” (which is really more of a prefix) we find that it means  “in reference to,” “about,” or “from within.” So websites and their designers need to do a little soul searching before their designs are complete. If you don’t understand the “within” for a particular job (web designers), then you most likely won’t be able to meet the needs of your client. Business owners, on the other hand, need to understand themselves before having new design implemented.

What questions can I ask myself related to establishing identity?

What language do I speak?

This is not as simple as it sounds; language is as deep and pervasive as any aspect of our identities. Furthermore, this question goes beyond what geographical tongue you use, but makes you describe who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach? Design, by definition, should fit a pre-determined purpose. Your website should be designed to fit a group or type of person with specific objectives. Maybe you are a blogger yourself and so, in considering design, you can access your own metacognitive habits and thoughts. Considering that I have a lot of readers who are, themselves, bloggers, web designers, and writers, I do my best to casually tailor my posts to fit their lexicons. I have an education blog too; I use different language off-the-cuff there than I would here.

For example, I may very easily dip into the educational “alphabet soup,” as one of my professors called it, and confuse readers if I am not careful. I wouldn’t dare write this sentence here without explanation:

“While NCLB may be considered to drive more action-based WFSGs and PDCs, there is  only correlative data to support this claim.”

Most people in the field of education (or very active parents) would understand that I’m writing about No Child Left Behind, Whole Faculty Study Groups, and Professional Development Communities, but a web designer would be rather perplexed most likely. On the same hand, I wouldn’t want to write this sentence in an education blog post:

“While pervasive in the development world, recursive acronyms like PHP, GNU, and TIP are humorous in ways often not understood by those outside of the field.”

What is your history?

Knowing where you have been is crucial to knowing where you are and where you want to go. So understanding the origins of your ideas is very helpful in forming a dialogue with your audience. If your readers perceive that you have an appropriate level of authority, then it will be much more likely for them to subscribe to your ideas. Being able to express where you are coming from is key to building a base upon which to prop your design (whatever it may be). Consider the classic frame of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell describes it:

Is your design heroic?

Is your design heroic?

Inception: the hero’s call to action (expressing the origins of your idea)

Trial by fire: the hero’s challenge (show your work and experience)

Return: the hero finds his/her way home, changed (explain how you are unique)

I have always understood the basic plan for design to be rooted in this information. Maybe it’s your updated business plan, your master’s thesis, or an autobiographical reflection; find useful ways to incorporate this information, and your design will be more authentic for it.

If you’d like to contribute an article to our conversation,  comment here, on RyanBurrell.com or at SilverPenPub.net. We’re also all active on Twitter:

Steve, Ryan, and Matthew.