Friday, July 23, 2010

Inoculations for viral internet stories

Earlier this week my brother who finds all things outrageous amusing sent me a forward that had been making the rounds purporting to prove that President Obama and his cabinet had the worst collective resumes in terms of private sector experience since FDR’s administration. I thanked him for the forward as I am always looking for something current to use in the information literacy activities I do with my students. And then the Shirley Sherrod story hit the news. I think I will stick with the forward I received but the Sherrod story makes it all that much clearer why our students must learn to assess their information, know how to track it to its source and then in the case of Sherrod, how to find the full text or in the case of the Obama Cabinet, how to test the information. Our students need to learn to think, analyze, research and then react. This is a lesson Secretary Vilsack should have had as well.

What follows is my reply to my brother.

Thanks for the forward. I will probably use it as one of my information literacy activities with my students this fall. I used to give them this email that circulated a few years back which purported to prove that there were more military deaths under Jimmy Carter than under George W. Bush. Fox news originally ran the story and misquoted the DOD/CRS numbers. This story then went viral on the email forwards with someone from a very conservative group actually changing the numbers and choosing to leave off the entire discussion of the numbers of non-fatal causalities during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It looks like your chart first was presented by Glen Beck. It then got circulated by a whole lot of groups including one called niggermania (I hope that's not where you got the story). The Volovkh Conspiracy a group of lawyer bloggers originally passed on the chart but has sense decided after discussing the underlying research and term definitions used by the creator, to remove the chart from its website. In explaining their decision The Volokh Conspiracy used as an example Eisenhower who apparently never had a private sector job even though he and his cabinet earn a 51% for private sector experience."This chart, in its original setting, has a number of qualifications that, among other things, make it clear that while there is a serious point at issue, it is also a bit of whimsy, and constructed as such".

I will probably have my students do their own research and actually figure out comparatively speaking how much private sector experience President Obama and President George W. Bush (in his first term) and their Cabinets had.

President Obama - He graduate from law school and worked at University of Chicago Law school as a Professor of Constitutional Law. Then he worked as a Civil Rights Lawyer with the private firm, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Not a small or large business but certainly private sector (unless you don't count U of Chicago).
President Bush - He created Arbusto Energy and then "when oil prices failed" the company merged with Harken Oil where he remained as a member of the board. He worked for his father's presidential campaign and then of course was managing director of the Texas Rangers.

Secretary of the Treasury
Hillary Clinton -- She worked as a lawyer for the Rose Law Firm from 1977-1992 when she became First Lady.
Colin Powell -- Career Military!

Secretary of the Treasury
Timothy Geitner--He started his career working for Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm started by Henry Kissinger, then among other things he worked in the Treasury Department during George Bush Sr's administration, for the embassy in Tokyo, Council on Foreign Relations and the IMF before becoming the youngest ever President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Paul O'Neil (the first of GWB's three Secretaries of the Treasury)--He wins the business credentials end of things as he was Chairman and CEO of Alcoa and of the Rand Corporation. But he quarreled with Bush and apparently vice president Cheney so he only lasted a year and was replaced by John Snow who before his appointment was Chairman and CEO of CSX. He got into CSX from his connections while working as a younger man for the Federal Department of Transportation. Snow was replaced by Henry Paulson.

I am going to leave the rest of the cabinet seats to my poor students. With the exception of Powell everyone I looked up in Wikipedia has some sort of private sector experience. I know college professors and lawyers aren’t small or large business owners. I doubt though that the concerns of an O'Neil or Snow are the same as those of the owner at your Prudential Office in Sarasota. And I had read in one of the more virulent sharers of your chart that working for AT&T didn't count. If it doesn't count then neither I suspect should Alcoa.

Anyway, what every happened to respect for genuine public service? I continue to admire Dick Lugar; when did he last have a private sector job? Our own PA Governor Rendall is a career politician who took Philadelphia from the trash heap and helped turn it around. While he and the state assembly continually fail to pass a budget on time that has a lot more to say about PA and the weird politics of this liberal on the ends conservative in the middle state (except conservative democrats tend to win in the central areas too as long as they are Pro-Life and Pro-gun rights.) I think Rendall loves all of the perks of his office but having followed his career now for 20 some years, I think he also has a keen sense of himself as a public servant.

Thanks for the forward and giving me something new with which to torture my students!


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer Reading Two

Hurray Nikki Giovanni, even when her poetry is angry or trying to provide comfort and meaning after the Virginia Tech shooting, she is still life affirming.

Perhaps the biggest stretch in my summer reading in some ways comes from Patel and Zakaria. Interestingly enough both are immigrants to the US and both have roots in India, Patel was born in England to first generation Indian immigrants and Zakaria was born in India and came to the US for his university education. Both love what the US has to offer but I wonder what a dinner party with the two men would be like? What each of them love about what the US has to offer are so very different. Zakaria looks to the vibrancy of American entrepreneurship, education, and the opportunity to both succeed and fail as the great strengths that will continue to serve the US well into the 21st century. He writes about the rise of other countries and how this will not so much diminish the US as bring the rest up to a degree of greater parity. He compares the emerging role for the US as that of chairman of the board, no longer able to dictate, but still in charge of the agenda and running the meeting. These he feels are all good things. He isn’t all rose colored glasses though, quite rightly he points to the fear mongering going on by the likes of Lou Dobbs and Glen Beck and members of both political parties though he sees it more on the right than the left and he points to the paralyzing partisanship that prevents Washington from choosing the delayed greater good for the immediate points scored at someone else’s expense. His focus is on Washington though, when he does discuss government.

Patel doesn’t denigrate the market place though he has no faith in corporate America. For him, the corporations’ fiduciary responsibility to turn a profit each quarter means that these legal fictional persons will always choose profit over the greater good. And that they will never value the externalities that they can avoid. What are the externalities, pollution comes to mind. Oil companies like working in places like Nigeria because the regulations are less. Its not he writes that Nigerian’s value clean air and water less than their American counterparts, but they have less power and money to pay for these things via their government’s regulations. All corporations have gotten too big and too powerful and have bought the governments so that corporate interests come before citizen interests. But Patel isn’t all doom and gloom, and interestingly, here is where he and Zakarria seem to come together. Patel argues for people taking back their right to govern, to come together as direct democracies, to discuss problems, and issues, and work together towards solutions. He has some great examples in Vermont and Brazil to name just two. While I was reading Patel, Illinois’ impending bankruptcy, the legislatures continuing inability to address the problem and the state comptroller’s inability to pay the state’s bill’s made me consider writing my cousins in Illinois and suggest that they begin a movement to take back control over the state finances. Have the comptroller send each community a dollar amount on what the state can afford to spend in their community and then let each community decide how to spend the money. Do they want pot hole free streets great, but is that more important than services for the elderly? Clearly, their elected officials are failing. Why not let the people decide. They certainly can’t do any worse.

This idea of participatory democracy rather than simply the privilege of voting every four years resonates with me. This is one of the ideas I hope to share with my students. And from Zakaria I will have them explore, the idea that solutions to the problems facing local communities, regions, and the international community will not all come from governments, even the US government, but from diffuse actors, NGOs, research universities, activist groups of citizens just like themselves.

So what remains to be read (barring those books I pick up at books stores along the way?) I have set aside Glück. I have just started Mira Kamdar’s Planet India. I have read Kamdar, Zakaria, and Patel in reverse order of publication which is causing some cognitive dissonance on its own. Kamdar was writing at the height of the Bush presidency--American unilaterialism and heavy-handed pushing of the “Washington Consensus”--, Zakaria was writing in the early stages of the 2008 election and Patel in 2010. Kamdar clearly thinks India will replace America and that its model of excessive consumerism and unbridled greed is a failed one (I am only in the first chapter!). I have Jack Weatherford’s new book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, The Concubine’s Daughter, Tanehaus’ Death of Conservatism, and King Leopold’s Ghost.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer Reading

Every spring I begin building a pile of books for my summer reading. Some of these are books related to my teaching, others are books I read about, others are recommended by friends, and still others come from books I have selected while browsing at my favorite book stores. Invariably, about half way through the summer, this mish-mash of biography, fiction, poetry, current events comes together around a few themes that emerge as though the books had been selected with a degree of intentionality. By the end of the summer I have built up a wealth of ideas, knowledge and material upon which to draw throughout the school year, in my work and at home. Like Leo Lionni’s character, Frederick I am laying up stores for the long winter ahead.

So far this summer the randomness of my pile remains intact. After all, what could Thief of Time(Pratchett), Switch (Heath and Heath), Shadows on the Rock (Cather) , Except the Queen (Yolen), The Value of Nothing (Patel), The Post American World (Zakaria), A Village Life:Poems (Louise Glück), and The Vintage Caper (Mayle) have in common? Yolen and Pratchett explore what it means to be human even when you are not and both authors bend time all out of shape though with very different effects. The Catholics in Cather’s 18th century Quebec do appreciate the wine that comes from France, one of the characters in the novel remarks that God put the wine in the grapes for man’s enjoyment and Peter’s Mayles’ Caper is paean to all French wine. But in truth, I am embarrassed to even mention Mayle in the same sentence with Cather. The first is really sparkling white wine (I once read a reviewer who called one of his earlier books the froth on Champagne) from Lelanau, Michigan, while Shadows is one of those vintage French wines that lingers and continues to reveal more of its richness with each rereading. As for the two fantasy books I need to abandon the wine metaphor altogether or I will end up with my all too tired rant about the artificiality of separating out fantasy as a separate genre.

Cather, Yolen, Pratchett and Patel all speak to the importance of community and valuing those things for which our modern market has no value—friendship, true opportunity, clean air, the exchange of goods and services among friends and neighbors, the messiness of life. Cather’s Quebec is life affirming even in the deaths she describes while Louise Glück’s cycle of poems set in an unnamed village hint at death and decay even in a poem about childhood friends on a picnic. I think I will be hard pressed to finish her poetry. Gluck’s poetry is replete with beautiful images, clear renderings of people and places but depression and dissolution linger in each poem. As I write I am sitting in our boat in Leland, Michigan. We are here an extra day due to small craft advisories. By the numbers Lake Michigan is massive: 307 miles long, 1640 miles of coast line, maximum depth 923 feet, 1180 cubic miles of water (volume) . When we are cruising, Tom will often remark, that’s a whole lot of water out there. The sky is endless and the dunes along the coast line are massive. All of this geography does make me feel small, finite and totally at the mercy of the wind and weather, but I don’t feel diminished; I am affirmed as a part of a bigger world. I am present in this moment, the characters in Gluck’s poetry always seem to be worrying about what is coming next or regretting what has past. Perhaps that is what I dislike, the sameness of the tone. The poets I love, Hughes, Frost, Millay, Giovanni, Levertov, Heaney, cover a range of emotions, tones, ideas, states of being and modes even within a slim volume of poetry. I will give Glück one more evening and then I may well abandon her , I have a Nikki Giovanni with me and Robert Frost.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Change at Independent Schools

This is a "reblog". I originally shared it with The Association of Deleware Valley Independent Schools, Powerful Learning Project Cohort in March 2010.

This past winter I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and I recently finished Dan and Chip Heath's Switch. Both books have provided me with a lot to think about in terms of how change happens. From Gladwell, I take heart in how connected we all are and how much of what we do and succeed at comes from taking a close look at who we are and the assets (or encumbrances) we carry with us each and every day. We may not all have access to super computers at an early age as did Bill Gates, but we are surrounded by people and opportunities who provide us with the tools we need in exchange for our hard work and personal investment. (10,000 hours is now my aspiring rock star daughter's mantra. According to Gladwell this is what separates the amazing athletes, writers, and musicians from the ordinary).

And now I have a caveat. One of the complaints I hear at my school (and I can only assume at other schools) is that groups are charged with tasks, they do a lot of research, engage others in conversation, debate possible outcomes and then generate recommendations which get passed onto administrators who are always busy. Sometimes one or two of the recommendations are implemented while the rest of the report gathers dust. Over time, faculty become jaded and wonder what all the effort is for. I recently had an administrator tell me that the reason most recommendations don't get implemented is that they are bad. But that is short sighted, bad or good, the correct response to the hard work a group of people was asked to take on is a response—a complete consideration of the entirety of their report. That doesn’t mean all or perhaps any of the recommendations are implemented. It seems so simple; people want their work (and time) acknowledged. This is where this caveat connects with personal investment! Change happens when a faculty is empowered to work on a challenge or idea, work through the possible answers and solutions and then tasked with implementing their ideas within the fiscal constraints that exist.

Heath and Heath make change seem possible, even at 200 year old schools steeped in tradition. One of the most interesting pieces of their book is the way that many of their examples of transformation begin with an initial solution that is small (all out of proportion) in comparison to the problem, but the solution is easily articulated and implemented, it involves changes in behavior (rather than attitude), it quickly builds energy and community, and shows results. Heath and Heath call some of this creating a path and I think that this is where independent schools most fall down. Many Heads of School start the year with a short list of projects for themselves and for the staff. Divisional heads have their own divisional goals and faculty are asked to write individual goals. All laudable in themselves but in the aggregate they end up being diffuse and perhaps overwhelming. And how are we to measure success? Retention? Yield on applicants, college admission results? The increase in the annual fund? The decrease in annual expenditures? What are our metrics?

Thinking about 21st century education or education in the 21st century can feel so overwhelming, so many programs, so many shifts, so many tools and cool lesson plans, so much to change in our current schedules, texts, assessments, that paralysis or TTWADI or entropy win out. The antidote seems to be a clear, specific path that focuses on shifting a very few behaviors. Each school will have its own particular path and I could imagine that each could easily choose to change very idiosyncratic things. Our Middle School has been involved in a multi-year re-envisioning process. Two years ago they implemented one change, one of the very few that was possible at the time--they created grade level teams and these teams started meeting weekly. These meetings have had tangible results in both jump starting program review, increasing collaboration and better attention to individual student strengths and challenges.

Now what small shift would it take to rethink our school year. . . . . ?