Meaning Matters

 

Reflecting on the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, Thyra VanKeeken  wrote, “Words matter—the right words can help to speak a new world into being. And words also have the power to tear things down. Words can build and connect community. Words can also hurt us. Words have power.” [1]

This is true in writing.  It is also true in politics, in everyday conversation, and in our schools.  If we are serious about working to improve the education of all students, we need to recognize that words are important and meaning matters. 

Kevin Kumashiro has articulated this in his discussion of how there seems to exist a “common sense” view of education in our country.  The problem with this approach to school improvement is that it does not tell us “what schools could be doing.”  Instead it assumes that it has the answer to “what schools should be doing.”  Kumashiro argues that in order to seek fundamental school improvement, we “first must redefine common sense and reframe how we think about education.” [2].

When we receive the latest report of gaps in achievement, then, we need to remember to focus less on the racial and socio-economic achievement gap and pay more attention to the opportunity gap that exists because of inequalities in housing, healthcare, school funding, and educational resources.  Similarly, we need to be clear about what we mean by educational accountability.   This has been a hot button issue in education for quite a while.  School reformers and politicians alike love to talk about it.  Problems arise, however, when we blindly accept a “common sense” attitude to accountability and fail to think clearly about what we mean, or maybe what we should mean.  For many educators, accountability has turned into a red flag term that conjures images of standardized testing, political agendas, and problematic teacher evaluation systems.  What happens when the conversation changes to a focus on what Deborah Meier calls authentic accountability: “accountability for meeting the actual educational and professional aims set by those working day in and day out with individual students and their families” [3]?  What might be the result of holding our political leaders accountable to providing schools and teachers with the resources needed to provide a quality education to all students?  Clearly meaning matters. 

We also need to be clear about what we mean by public education.  In current debates about public schools, their effectiveness or lack thereof, and how to reform our educational system, we’ve reduced the meaning of public to how schools are financed.  We need, instead, to reclaim a vision of the public good, embrace the values of equality and justice, and pursue a vision of public schools that is “predicated on the notion that you’re concerned about other’s people’s kids, just not your own kids” [4].

Words are indeed powerful, and the meaning we give to them matters.  If we are dedicated to improving the educational experience of all students, and we should be, then we can’t be satisfied with “common sense” assumptions about teaching and learning.  Our students deserve better.

[1] http://dojustice.crcna.org/article/what-do-words-matter

[2] Kumashiro, K. (2008). The seducation of common sense: How the right has framed the debate on America’s schools. New York: Teachers College Press, page 5.

[3] Meier, D., & Gasoi, E. (2017). These schools belong to you and me: Why we can’t afford to abandon our public schools. Boston: Beacon Press, page 114.

[4] Cornel West in “Tavis Smiley Presents: Poverty in America”, January 17, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March for our lives, seeking justice today

Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff opens one of his essays with a quote that says that in order to act responsibly in our world, we need to view it from the vantage point of redemption. This messianic light estranges the world, revealing its abnormal rifts and crevasses, and suggests ways of being that involve seeking justice, struggling towards the way the world might one day be.

 This redemptive vantage point can sharpen our perspective on the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. School shootings in the USA have had a familiar pattern: shock, grief, offerings of thoughts and prayers, push for debate on gun control, politicians wringing hands that nothing can be done, and then settling back into the status quo. Reinforcing this status quo are suggestions, such as that of Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, to place armed volunteers in schools, so that when parents drop off their children, they can visibly see “someone is out there looking out for their safety.” Suggestions about arming teachers also reinforces this. The normalcy of gun violence, in this way of thinking, leads to suggestions that it needs to be met with even stronger violence. This solution affirms the normalcy of violence. Peace is to be achieved through forceful pacification at the end of another gun.

But when a messianic light shines on this, when we look at it from a redemptive standpoint, we can see how abnormal the status quo is. Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale relates a student’s comment, “My parents save my voice mails in case I get killed at school.” It isn’t normal for parents to be collecting voice traces of not-yet killed students in case they die by another mass shooter. UpWorthy’s Eric Pfieffer recounts a fifth-grader telling his mom that if there was a shooter in his school, he had volunteered to help push a heavy desk against the door, concluding “If it came down to it, I would rather be the one that died protecting my friends then have an entire class die and I be the only one that lived." It is not normal for a young boy to have to be faced with this decision in his school.

Canadian artist Pia Guerra sketched a drawing entitled “Hero’s welcome,” which pictures a large crowd of mostly children and some adults facing the viewer, and in front of them a young girl tugging at the hand of a large man walking hesitantly towards them. The young girl says, “Come on Mr Fies! So many of us want to meet you!” Mr. Fies was the 63-year-old assistant coach and security guard at the Florida high school that died in a hail of bullets by throwing himself in front of students, and the crowd in the drawing are the many students and adults that have already died in the many school shootings in the USA. This is not normal. The messianic light shows it is abnormal for schools to be places of mass shooting and death rather than safe spaces, gardens of delight, as educator David Smith names them.

The Kingdom of God is an alternative vision for society. Wolterstorff has shown that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice, and Messiah comes to bring justice. This vision is not one of peace through violence, but of peace through justice. And this is not the justice of retribution, but the justice of protecting the vulnerable, which the Old Testament prophets concretized as the quartet (widows, orphans, poor, aliens). And, Wolterstorff says, this messianic justice is not something that comes only at the end of time. Rather, Messiah’s coming long ago announced the arrival of the kingdom, and thus the arrival of the reign of justice. And it is clear from the logic of such justice, that justice delayed is justice denied. Justice cannot wait. Peace and security—the flourishing associated with the garden of delight—must be enacted now, and here. We must seek justice now.

This is something within our reach. Such justice can be enacted. There are many countries around the world where there are no mass shootings in schools, where students don’t go through lock-down drills, where parents don’t save voicemails because their students might be killed at school. These countries have, in fact, been enacting peace through justice. They have passed laws that ban certain guns, make it more difficult to acquire them, have the means to track them, allow the study of gun violence nationally. In the USA, this is within our reach. We must seek such justice.

But it requires a change of perspective. It requires the vantage point of redemption to see the abnormalcy of pacification through violence, and that peace through justice is the better way, the way of the Kingdom of God.  Given that most all of the politicians and legislators in the USA publically profess to be Christians, it should be quite easy to make the case to them that the vision of the Kingdom of justice is the better way, that they should seek peace through justice.

The students in Florida have not just been grieving. They have transformed their grief into righteous anger and action. They have been organizing a call to action, previewed in their visits to the White House and the Florida Capitol, and taking the form of a set of protest and pressure marches on March 24 of this year. This includes a march on Washington to pressure Congress to go the way of peace and security through justice. The March for our Lives protest is a call to seek justice—a call to legislators to protect the vulnerable, endangered by reckless gun laws, to enact real change towards peace rather than pacification. This call is a trace of the messianic kingdom of justice breaking through in our society today.

Clarence Joldersma is the resident philosopher and interdisciplinary scholar of the Graduate Studies in Education Program at Calvin College.  He has been influenced by theorists from several academic areas, including Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi in philosophy of science, Jurgen Habermas and Emmanuel Levinas in continental philosophy, and Hendrik Hart and Nicholas Wolterstorff in Christian philosophy.

 

Taking Back Teaching

Jo Kuyvenhoven. Professor of Education (Literacy/Reading), Calvin College

This is a tough time to be a teacher.  On the one hand, we, who teach, have deep pleasure in our work.  It’s endlessly interesting, often satisfying, and never boring.  Everyday is percolated through by intellectual and creative challenges; by the fascinating lives of 20 or more others sharing our room; and new frontiers for teaching and learning we confront daily.

On the other hand, most of us are experiencing what the statistics tell us.  There is a growing problem. Fewer people want to teach.  It is a job that is perceived to be unattractive and under siege.  From 1971 - 2000, the percentage of college entry students declaring interest in education stayed between 11-10%.  But, by 2015, that dropped to 4.5% according to data gathered by the UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program (2016).  The plummeting enrollment of future teachers is exacerbated by the current rate of attrition, 8% annually.  Two thirds of teachers quit before they take retirement.  We are short of teachers in many places today; by 2020 the USA will need 300,000 qualified teachers.   That shortage will challenge the well-being of our future nation.  It also bodes something deeper concerning the health of our profession. 

Why don’t people like to teach anymore?  If you are connected to the teaching profession, you can easily think of many reasons. Teaching is hard work!  Sure, there’s a “summer holiday,” but for 10 full months a typical work day stretches from 7 AM to 11 PM, with just a few brief breaks for personal needs. [1]  The job is also complex, increasingly so.  Teachers master diverse content knowledges each with its applied skills.  They also need to know the subject area with its social developmental increments for teaching and learning. Teachers address and facilitate social-emotional and cultural diversity for inclusion and positive participation by all.  While working with common standards, they differentiate instruction. On a daily basis they write plans, conduct formative and summative assessments, and reportage.  They meet with parents, administrators, and school teams. They need good health and physical energy in a job that demands getting children’s interest, patrolling playgrounds, creating learning environments, and doing anything they can to engage restless children for almost 6 hours at a stretch.  They juggle responsibility to administrators, parents, evaluators, but primarily, to their children.

Most of those are not the reasons cited for leaving the profession.  For one, while the job is arduous and accountability demands are very high, the pay is low.  Teachers earn an average of 17% lower wages than those with comparable education.  In a female dominated profession (elementary), it is not surprising that child care or pregnancy (37%) causes many good teachers to leave.   High on the scales of dissatisfaction are the more “recent school accountability measures,” and “the administration” as these accounted for 25 and 21% respectively for teacher attrition. 

In this blog we hope to offer a place to share insights about why we teach.  Share ideas, news, problems and issues that are common to all of us.  Pull our insights-out and imagine possibilities, courage, and the understandings we need to teach well.  Nourish excitement and interest in our vital profession.

[1] Leib Sutcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Desiree Carver-Thomas (2016).  “A Coming Crisis in Teaching?  Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.”  Learning Policy Institute.  Downloaded from: <https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/A_Coming_Crisis_in_Teaching_REPORT.pdf> December 17, 2017.  This comprehensive document about the state of teacher-education and related US national data and demands for teachers, offers a detailed and very interesting description.

Jo Kuyvenhoven is a Professor of Education at Calvin College, teaching in both the undergraduate and graduate program. She currently teaches literacy/reading courses in both levels. She is a literacy consultant to International Rescue Committee (IRC)

 

Shoulder Angels

Calvin College celebrates each year the graduating education students with a Teacher Commissioning Ceremony. This year Dr. David I Smith, director of graduate studies in education at the college, spoke with the graduates about some experiences from his teaching career that have influenced his teaching. He talks about “shoulder angels” he discovered among his students and how they influenced his decisions when designing instruction and thinking about classroom management. The graduates were left with some very thought provoking advice as they go out into their classrooms. Who are your “shoulder angels”? Watch this 20 minute inspirational talk:

https://youtu.be/ybHWLOedvAc