Is Obama really a Commie or are you just lazy?

Lately some of my conservative friends have joined the Right wing chorus in calling Obama a Marxist. I suspect few have actually read Communist Manifesto. I also suspect they’d be hard pressed to show clear and convincing evidence. Yet they’re all too willing to pin a scarlet “C” on his lapel.

This observation has nothing to do with supporting Obama or Romney in the next election. Neither does it have anything to do with critiquing his performance,  a subject about which much can be said. I’m thinking more about how we use language in our discussions about important issues. Having recently slogged through much of the Communist Manefesto, which should be marketed as a cure for insomnia, calling Obama a Marxist is hyperbole and a lazy argument.

The language we choose controls whether the discussion is a fair exchange of ideas or a blood sport. Describing him as a European style Social Democrat. comes closer to the mark. But even that isn’t really accurate. To me he’s more of a Roosevelt Democrat. Labeling him thusly sets Obama squarely within the mainstream of the modern American political spectrum while leaving plenty of room to disagree with Obama’s policies and for criticism of his performance. But voters then must think for themselves.

I’ve also been contemplating the other Roosevelt as well–Teddy. He understood the American economy and our culture are at their best when there’s a greater distribution of wealth.

Just as unfettered socialism leads to dissolution, monopoly and oligarchy are the end result of unbridled Capitalism.  With both come a host of social ills that impoverish people and our country. No offense, but anyone who thinks lazy people will work without necessity or  businesses will police themselves is a moron.  History has shown empires crumble when people get lazy; human degradation occurs when a small group of people control all the wealth and power.

The American way is based on a wider distribution of wealth and power. That makes America unique in history and what makes it a great country. This situation did not happen by accident. It required a culture of civility and acceptance of policies and regulations that limit the big guys while creating  opportunities for the the small guys.

Nobody with the intelligence and drive to succeed likes limits or rules that stand in their way of achievement. Yet both are foundational elements of our way of life.

To be sure limits are there to be pushed and rules to be questioned but no one gets his way all the time. An unwillingness or inability to accept that is a sign of immaturity.

Coming back to my thoughts about language and how it shapes the public debate, lazy or cynical rhetoric that pander to prejudices and fear are divisive by definition and  rob us all of the opportunity to thoughtfully consider the options.

Feckless partisanship and an unwillingness to compromise have  resulted in unproductive  conflict.

Um . . . Yeah, like, teaching stuff

“There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” (Lola J. May, educator and writer)

On it’s face, May’s advice rings true. Who could argue with a prescription requiring teachers to master their subject, tailor their lessons to fit their students situations, and teach with style?

The best answer to that question lies in the details. What does it mean to master a subject? What does it mean to teach to an audience? What does it mean to teach elegantly? And, last how does the word “stuff” shape May’s message and reflect on teaching style?

Just as work ethic better predicts success than grades, how a teacher answers those questions gives more meaningful insight into his or her effectiveness for the challenges of the 21st century classroom.

Know Your Stuff

Virtually any Education major who manages to get a diploma can satisfy the Commonwealth’s requirements for a teaching license and in so doing truthfully claim subject matter expertise as well as qualify for “Highly Qualified Teacher” status.

Merely satisfying requirements is neither an effective nor particularly meaningful measure of a teacher. At best those data points imply competence, at worst they hide incompetence.

Learning does not stop with the terminal degree nor the Professional license. Indeed, “The illiterate of the 21st century,” writes furturist Alvin Toffler, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Great teachers commit to life long learning. They live Toffler’s prescription. They study their subject ferociously and fearlessly question their knowledge over the course of their careers. They model this wisdom and weave it into their lessons. They develop ways to balance the demand for excellence and accountability with rewarding risk and earnest failures that lead to growth.

Know Whom You Are Stuffing

At the risk of stating the obvious, high school teachers should actually like working with adolescents. Teachers should take the time to form authentic relationships with their students and invest in their education–even when it appears that the investment is taken for granted. Many of the “seeds” sewn in high school do not come to fruition until later in life.

For sure, teaching to a diverse student body is tricky business. Students in public high schools present with varying levels of intelligence, social and intellectual maturity, and motivation. They arrive at school every day shouldering heavy backpacks and dragging the less visible baggage of their home lives and cultural backgrounds. This presents objective challenges to the precept “know whom you are stuffing.”

Districts help with a thoughtful placement process which builds cohorts of students of similar abilities and match them to teachers with demonstrable success with that group.

Likewise, curricula established by administrators and classroom teachers who are familiar with both the Commonwealth’s frameworks and the idiosyncrasies of their community help. Pre-qualifying in public schools with heterogeneous populations and limited resources ultimately create diverse classrooms.

That puts the burden on classroom teachers to reach as many students as possible. To do so, teachers must rely on their expertise, life experiences, wisdom, and people skills to  to create clear pictures of their students and, to the extent possible, employ strategies which balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few.

Stuff them Elegantly

The work of “stuffi[ng] them elegantly” requires balancing two (sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive) absolute necessities: treating students as individuals and insuring the majority of the class masters the curriculum by year’s end.

Solving the problems of teaching to diverse populations might stand as a good candidate for the definition of “teaching elegantly.” Elegance implies good communication and organizational skills, It implies creative teaching strategies and rapport with students. Yet, the phrase glibly ignores reality. Good teaching is hard work. It requires energy, flexibility, compassion, a commitment to high standards, a sense-of-humor, patience, and the ability to inspire.

Good teachers aspire to those intangible qualities. Whatever happens with data driven teacher evaluations, educators who are not life-long learners and who do not practice Toffler’s regimen of learning, questioning, and relearning doom themselves and their students to mediocrity or worse.

Parsing Stuff

On the most basic level May’s advice about teaching works for me. Being a language person, however. I am sensitive to the subtle changes in the word “stuff’s” function in each clause and how that affects the semantics of her message.

“Stuffing” students full of “knowledge” presupposes a passive learning situation in which the teacher gives and the student receives. “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon,” (E. M. Forster).

Students learn to the extent of their investment in their education. Data driven evaluations and high stakes testing may be useful tools but they do not and cannot measure growth in work habits and commitment.

Face it, no matter how much we as educators and students love our fields, our students may not. When they’re 50 years they probably will not remember how to solve a quadratic equation or diagram a sentence, but they will rely on the mental and work habits developed during their formal education. That makes a collaborative learning experience so very important.

Bahn Voy-ah-gee, Doc

Over the last six years my involvement in town government as a member of the Planning Board and as a Selectman yielded many successes, some losses, and a few bruises.

This blog was originally created as a way support that involvement and to provide a way to contribute to the conversation about local affairs in Wrentham without the interference of the gatekeepers employed by the local newspapers. It served its purpose well.

The time has come, however, to move on. Though I will likely continue to write about local affairs, most of my writing time will be spent on long form fiction and non-fiction projects.

Planning Board

The Planning Board has risen like a phoenix after suffering a vituperous propaganda onslaught  in 2005 when it attempted to modernize Wrentham’s zoning.

The members of that board strove to realize the vision set forth in the Town Plan which itself was the result of $100,000 visioning process . A record number of people participated. The final product laid out a plan that struck the proper balance between maintaining our country charm, managing growth, and providing for long term financial stability.

The zoning controversy led to mistrust by the community and strife among members. One by one, we overcame the challenges. Over time the members learned to work as a team. The community learned to respect our work.

Board of Selectmen

The Board of Selectmen has undergone nothing short of a complete revolution. All of the Selectmen on the board in the first year of my term have been replaced by people, who in my opinion, are more family friendly, more connected to mainstream Wrentham and more compassionate in their dealings with staff and the community. Moreover, they seem to have a clearer understanding of the relationship between long term financial sustainability and commercial development.

What is more, during my three year term on the BoS I helped lay a solid foundation for a highly professional staff and a more stable government. Over my three year term, we hired a new Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, and Public Works Director and Town Administrator whose expertise and equanimous management style put the icing on the “Vote for Change” cake promised by my campaign signs. He fosters a more collaborative environment at Town Hall.

Summing it Up

A recent article  about my departure from the Planning Board suggested that my motives were genuine but my tenure as a public servant had mixed results.  I suppose that’s true to an extent. It is fair to say I didn’t win every battle neither did I convince the status quo hardliners to like me. So what. I was not then and never will be a politician. I never cared about getting reelected or making friends. Besides, who wins every battle?

I got talked into joining the Planning Board by a person whom I’d met at the soccer fields. He politely listened to me kvetching about how the town was run. And finally, he suggested I be part of the solution instead of a complainer.

That patient listener was the chair of the Planning Board.  It seemed there was a vacancy owing to a resignation. That led to a great adventure.

As with all true adventures, the journey had its moments of light and dark. It was challenging and the outcome uncertain. Looking in the rear view mirror, the classic Aristotelian story model fits the narrative about my public service perfectly. I can see it all: the explication/ introduction, the rising action, a climax, the falling action, and finally a dénouement.

What did I learn?  For one thing, how to develop a thicker skin. For another, let’s just say public service is rewarding but it’s not as easy at it looks.

Bahn Voy-ah-gee, Doc

The time has come for me to devote my energies to professional endeavors, my family, and personal interests. Thank you to people of Wrentham for the opportunity to serve the community. And thank you to my colleagues, both past and present, for your sincere effort, hard work, and friendship.

Gandhi Quote

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

This passage is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, who is known for his  belief in non-violent resistance in political struggles. Some sources suggest it’s apocryphal, rather like George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie.’ It sounds like something we hope the legendary figure would say, so we believe it.

As I understand his views, strength employed in the service of violence, or revenge, or bad intentions, whether in thought, word or deed, are acts of weakness, not strength.

Whether Gandhi actually said those words is irrelevant. The wisdom they impart is undeniably true. People who seek freedom from bullies and strongmen of any stripe can take comfort in the predictability of their enemies’ reactions and use their foe’s strength against them.