Thursday, July 29, 2010

If You're Going to Do Good Work, the Work Has to Scare You

I got lost the other night on McDade Boulevard and, uncharacteristically, I was a little scared. 

Not that much scares me in terms of neighborhoods. I used to live, among other odd places, in a dodgy part of Brooklyn where every morning I woke to dozens of empty crack vials littering my stoop (no, they were not mine or those of anyone I knew!). 

But this place made me feel scared in a lonely, bleak, hopeless sort of way. 

I saw a toddler, naked except for a drooping diaper, leaning in the open doorway of a tilted, shabby rowhouse. The highway, with zooming boats of decrepit cars roaring past, was about 10 feet away.

BVM was right there...the Blessed Virgin Mary. A church. It was dark gray and looked, to my eyes, sort of foreboding. How many people, I wondered, actually went there? And how do we justify this large, sturdy church in the midst of crumbling, subpar homes?

There was a serious air of poverty about. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could.

But I was lost.

I asked for directions at a gas station, leaning into the bulletproof partition that protected the cashier. She seemed sort of put out that I asked, even though I was also paying her fifty dollars cash to fill up. This woman--begrudgingly--gave me utterly crappy, totally wrong directions that only took me miles more astray, toward the even bleaker city of Chester.

None of these places (and I was--embarrassingly--lost after an Away swim team meet. How ridiculous!) seemed like places I would ever care to visit again.

And that got me thinking: I need a GPS (though I seldom get lost). But also: I believe in the saying, "If you're going to do good work, the work has to scare you," (as Andre Previn, the composer, once said). 

Chester and its environs scares me. But I have always intended to do good work, somewhere, somehow.

I think often of how best to help. Teaching? Tutoring? Exposing people to the arts? Or should I seriously just get a bus and fix it up and use it to drive in fresh vegetables from the farms and maybe even provide some free or low-cost outpatient medical care? Should I deliver books to these neighborhoods?

Should I become a physician now, which has long been nagging at me? A trauma nurse?

I am writing a new book right now, for which I have high hopes...maybe that's part of my calling.

The answer, I assume, will come to me. 

In the meantime, I call on everyone else to consider how they can be of service to others--and I mean really help people (not give a bit of money here and there to bureaucrats on your side of the political fence). 

We are here to help each other, to make a difference. Or, at least, that's the only reason I can see for even existing.

I won't make this about God. I am not much into church or organized religion, especially not of late. I have been very turned off by the intolerant types who seem drawn to such things, and I sincerely wonder if I will ever be able to forgive and forget.

I think, though, that the purpose of life has to do with creating meaning where there may have been none before.

What is the good work that you can do? Are you scared to try it? If so, then you simply have to do it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm Not an Atheist, but Atheists Seem Like Good People

Some of my staunchest supporters in the wake of the Conservative Freak Thrashing I recently received are atheists. 

This surprised me because I am not an atheist, though I don't go to church since some priest intoned that all of us Dems were going to Hell because of the smshortion issue. I stood up and walked out, and many other people around me did the same.

Still, now that I think about it, I shouldn't be surprised. Who else but the bold, insightful atheists (they might prefer the term "humanist") would be most likely to speak out against religious intolerance? 

What happened to me (see June postings on this blog) occurred at a Catholic school. I was raised Catholic, though I now disagree with several key aspects of the religion, mostly how women are viewed and disrespected because they are not allowed to be ordained.

I am not anti-Catholic, though; I still think it's a decent, mostly good, religion. Every institution has, I am sure, its prickly types, and just because those folks are loud and obnoxious doesn't mean that the rest of us will continue to put up with their intolerance and archaic views....then again, the history of the RCC is a bit harsh, isn't it?

Never mind; I'll become Episcopal, I think. Or wait, I always wanted to be Quaker...I am joking about changing teams. Why bother, since I will only continue to think for myself in all areas? I quite like Buddhism, though, and the inherent morality it contains despite the "there is no God" aspect of the philosophy. Whether there is a God or isn't (I do feel sure there is a force of some kind, a loving force that beckons us to open our eyes and not be ignorant), people should still be kind to one another and treat the planet well, and this is what Buddhism espouses.

The Catholic school at which I worked (and I never applied to work there, either; I was specifically asked to teach there, which I always considered a small miracle, seeing as it came out of the blue) did not fire me because of any religious ideals, or any issues-based stance, but rather, because the new administration was concerned about losing donor and tuition money--and not a lot, either; this was money from one family.

From what I understand, however, they just lost so many students for this upcoming year that they are now financially hurting. This is very bad. I hope the school as I knew it survives because--at least before this storm of nastiness happened, and was allowed to happen and keep happening (I'm not sure which is worse)--it was a wonderful, accepting, loving place.

Running schools like businesses is another problem in terms of what I, as an educator, expect for my own kids and students, and it certainly distracts from the idealistic hopes I have for personal learning. The school I used to know was far less a business, far more a bastion of warmth.

Back to my point, however: atheists wrote in support of me and my teaching of critical thinking skills on   different blogs, such as "Friendly Atheist." (There are more; if you Google my name and teacher, you will find them, I think.)


The main issue that atheists/humanists were focusing on is the idiocy of some religions, of course, but general ideas about intolerance and the self-imposed serfdom that all employees implicitly agree to in capitalist societies also came up.

These are very important issues. Why have so many people just blindly accepted that their employers can control their lives, especially their lives outside of work? Why don't people speak up more about the fact that by not protesting when other people are attacked/fired for the most minor and unintentional errors, we are letting ourselves (all of us!) be enslaved to bureaucracy, corporate greed, and the interests of money?

Caring more about businesses and money than people is the precise problem I have with Conservatism; this is why I am a Democrat.

In the name of capitalism and so-called progress, people have been readily agreeing to their own repression. That's actually horrifying, and if we don't--all of us, whatever our religious or non-religious beliefs--assert ourselves, collectively and individually, it's just going to get worse.

More people will be attacked and fired for increasingly absurd and innocent things, such as being seen having a glass of wine in a restaurant or other, exceedingly minor "indiscretions."

If you agree that teachers can't have lives out of school, or any personally-held opinions, and that they should never, ever share those opinions, then you're already lost. You are, as PZ Myers wrote, part of the problem. You are just perpetuating the stupidity and senselessness, and you are not helping to "protect" students in any way.

Stand up for yourselves, everyone. I always have. And yes, self-assertion can lead to problems...but the alternative (virtual enslavement, brainwashing) is, I think, far worse.

See the blog below to get more important humanist ideas. And thank you, atheists. You strike me as much kinder and more thoughtful people than many of the intolerant, nasty religious types I've met.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Caution: Men Fighting Trash Cans (What My Little One Said)

Every summer, work is done to the roads around my house. It looks like exactly the same work every summer; I truly wonder if it isn't indicative of some sort of corruption.

But anyway. There was this construction sign (above) on the road leading to the pool. "Men fighting trash cans!" said my youngest daughter.

That absolutely cracked me up. It does look like a person winding up to punch some sort of boxy thing, doesn't it?

I liked her comment because it just goes to show how there are different ways of viewing the world. I don't know if my daughter's way of interpreting this sign shows more imagination than what the rest of us see (man holding a flag), or if the rest of us have just been duped into accepting a rather inaccurate looking sign.

What do you think?

Monday, July 19, 2010

When Obstructionism is Just Plain Evil. Like Now.

Anyone know what the national unemployment level is now? It's high; quite high. Maybe not as high as it was a few months ago, but when it's around 10% (which, I believe, is about six percent higher than anyone would ever expect it to be), or even, more realistically, 15%, it's definitely not a good thing.

What makes the numbers even more ominous is the fact that so many people have been out of work for so long. Six months or longer...sometimes a year and a half.  We can thank the de-regulation of various industries and the vagaries of the free market for the current hell we are experiencing. Guess who was largely responsible for that? 

(Note: I think the people who voted for the politicians who were behind the financial crisis ought to pay reparations to help support out-of-work Americans. That would be a help. I also think they should probably perform eight years of community service, but I'm too nice to say that out loud).

How, you may wonder, do people survive and feed their families when they are unemployed? They collect unemployment insurance.

It's a handy social program that everyone who works pays into, and if you are out of work, then you can collect. For a while (the exact amount of time varies constantly).

Unemployment insurance is by no means a perfect thing; it doesn't really pay enough, just enough for people to scrape by, month to month. It's certainly not enough to pay a mortgage. It might help with gas for the car and groceries, though.

I am collecting unemployment right now. I am not ashamed; it's my right, and I've paid into the system for a good 20 years.

My paycheck as a teacher was so small that my unemployment payments aren't that much less (except for the niggling fact of health insurance; COBRA eats up my entire monthly unemployment take), so because I've had help, I've been okay so far.

What I found most charming (sarcasm!) about losing my job is that the engineers of my job loss specifically said, to my face, they hoped that after they pushed me out of a job, I would lose my house, and they hoped that I, and my family, would starve and "die in the street." They said it would be laughable and highly entertaining to watch.

Can you believe that? It's God's honest truth. You can't make this stuff up (a big reason why I love nonfiction), and yes, there were witnesses.

I was shocked, appalled, outraged when I heard this--yes. I was even more disgusted that two other people sat there while it happened like a pair of Magoos, uncomprehending and sadly oblivious to the threats (or simply in denial because they share those warped politics).

They call themselves Christian? They call themselves Catholic? Hypocrites. Seriously!

Lack of caring about other people, I see now, must be a conservative thing. Who else could consciously push people out of work just to be mean, turn their back on problems for which they are largely responsible, and even prepare to "laugh" when others are suffering? 

How else can this be interpreted by me or anyone else, especially when the Republicans in Congress keep trying to block extensions of unemployment insurance payments while families quite literally are starving and in danger of losing their homes?

(See the president's take on Republicans holding the unemployed hostage, while they play cruel and idiotic political games:)

Every time I see one of those goons on television talking smack about how, because of the deficit (which was run up by You Know Who) "we need to figure out how we're paying for unemployment" before we pay the unemployed a very basic (and earned) subsistence wage, I want to scream. We pay for unemployment with paycheck deductions, with taxes.

To block extension of unemployment benefits to suffering people is, I think, pure, uncaring, absurd evil.

How could anyone in a position of power block progress, block votes, and blither and blather and twiddle thumbs while people are actually hungry and homeless and in need of help? It's truly hard to fathom how anyone could think that's the right thing to do.

I don't expect unemployment insurance to last forever, and I don't necessarily think that it should. But when people are visiting food pantries and soup kitchens (I am not, but I've read about many people who've had to do this since their benefits ran out and they can't find enough work to support themselves, and since they are in limbo while obstructionists toy with their very survival), that is not acceptable. It is not sensible politics; it is not in any way reasonable.

This just in: Democrats are taking care of the problem. As usual. Go, Dems! They're the good guys.

A civilized society does not shrug its collective shoulders and say, "Heh. Sucks to be you! If you're starving, it's because you're lazy and anyway, you probably deserve it."

This is not about laziness; it's about lack of available work that pays a livable wage. Those people visiting the food pantries are, in many cases, working. They are doing whatever they can to survive. It is unconscionable that certain politicans (and people behind them) refuse to help.

Really, what work is out there? I've had plenty of trolls write about me and say that I should be sent to the Gulf to clean up the if I'd committed a crime somehow and needed to redeem myself through hard labor in a hellhole of heat and contamination, a hell I had no part in causing.

I've had others say: "Send her to North Philly to teach and see how she likes that!"

Guess what? I've already done that, volunteered my time to help children of immigrants learn English. What good have the trolls done for society, besides complain about anyone with a brain and attack good people who call them out on their intolerance?

Someone even said I need a "spanking." Are you kidding me? Because I dared to speak out?

All this experience has done to me is make me more likely to speak out and stand up for the people who have been getting screwed over by obstructionists who only care about money, not other people, not actual life. I am more inspired than ever to push hard for what's right, for positive change, for exposing the evil of obstructionism and certain kinds of misguided politics.

I hope more people think, now, about how their politics might be affecting everyone else. I have always thought that way; I have only wanted the best for everyone around me. 

Apparently, meanness can spread like leprosy, but I am glad to see news anchors routinely telling off the politicians who blabber proudly on TV about how they've been blocking the extension of unemployment insurance payments, for no good reason--except to be a pain in the butt.

I hope more people will speak out about all the injustices I've listed here.

I hope more people will realize that when we help others, we also help ourselves.

I also hope this post helps someone the very least, I hope it helps them to open their eyes and their mind.

Just Say No to the Party of No...Just Say No to Obstructionism and Meanness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

PLP, Edu Tech, Teacher Innovation: Is it Worth it?

Have you heard about PLP cohorts? (PLP stands for Powerful Learning Practice.) Maybe PLP has come to a school near you; teachers all over the U.S. are participating in this edtech leaders' group, and it's run by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. 

They are rather well known for their work educating teachers to help improve their practices by using 21st-century teaching methods. See

PLP can enhance education; it might also end up enriching teachers' and students'  lives. Or maybe, it will just shake things up..and not in a good way.

I was all psyched (two years ago) to join with these trendsetters, to take my teaching to the next level by incorporating technological tools into my classroom. I attended two PLP conferences and joined in numerous online workshops. I hit another one tonight--#edopenmic.  It was an Elluminate session for educators, advertised on Twitter.

Earlier today, I had been chatting (via Twitter direct messages) with another teacher who knew about me, who knew what had happened to me because of blogging.  She blogs, too. She is a great example of a teacher using blogging to share effective teaching methods with fellow teachers.

This teacher was, I believe, also a member of PLP. She reminded me that I should ask the PLP leaders, Will and Sheryl, how they might address the fact that 1) they recommended that I blog and 2) I got fired, ostensibly for blogging. She told me that her school admin had led a workshop when the year ended, and my name was mentioned--e.g., "Don't let what happened to Elizabeth Collins happen to you."

I was incredulous. But, on the one hand, I am a public figure in some circles. So be it. 

On the other hand, I have heard hardly a peep from either Will or Sheryl, and I thought for sure that they might be able to procure positive change for others from the nightmare I experienced. (Maybe I just have to do that all by myself.)

I actually neither want nor need Will or Sheryl to feel sorry for me or to apologize to me for suggesting I do something that led to me losing my job. I want to see PLP leaders working now to secure protections for teachers using technology. I want to be assured that this won't be as likely to happen again.

How might the PLP founders do this? Perhaps by getting school administrators (at schools where teachers are participating in PLP workshops) to sign pledges saying they won't fire teachers for daring to use technology (especially after they've been instructed to do so in PLP conferences!).

I think that would be a good first step. Still, school administrators often seem warily okay with teachers using technology. They seem to realize, for the most part, that education needs to evolve, that teachers need to grow and expand their skillsets in order to keep up with tech-savvy students.

Yet, school administrators might still end up firing a teacher for blogging or Tweeting. Not because blogging and Tweeting are inherently bad, but rather, because some parents on a witch-hunt might complain about teachers daring to have online presences.

So many parents just don't seem to get it. (Can PLP also try to educate parents about the ways in which schools and teachers need to change? Somebody has to deal with this.)

I was on a radio show last month where people called in and one mom sort of yelled at me, saying, "Blogging? You want students to blog? You blog? I don't want my kids blogging! They spend enough time on the computer!"

I have also heard, "How do you have time to blog? You should just be teaching or grading papers."  But like anything else, if you want to blog or write or exercise, or even cook breakfast, you make the time. The time exists; just spend less time wasting time, and boom: you've found it.

And where (I feel like cursing here but won't) did people ever get the idea that teachers cannot ever deign to speak about teaching, whether it's on a blog or anywhere else? That seems to be the biggest bugaboo--blogging about teaching, Tweeting about teaching. 

But why? Publicists tweet about publicizing. Publishers Tweet about what they are going to publish or will never publish. Actors Tweet about fellow actors all the time.

Everyone on Planet Earth, it seems, Tweets about what matters to them--whether it's religion or the World Cup or how freaky Glenn Beck is.

Why are teachers supposed to stay silent about teaching? That makes no sense to me. No sense at all. Teachers need to spread to the word about what works and what doesn't, what lessons they've created, what tools they've found to help improve their teaching.

That's why I liked PLP. People shared important information there. I grew as a teacher as a result. Now, however, I'm sort of wondering: what's the point? Are we too far ahead of ourselves? Are we telling teachers to do things that the rest of the world isn't ready to see happening in schools?

What good is it to inspire teachers to better inspire students if they are just going to be destroyed or vilified as a result?

In a perfect world, I would want more teachers to have the experiences I did, to grow and expand their minds--and, consequently, better guide their own students by keeping them more invested, more engaged in the learning process. In order for this to happen, administrators and parents need to trust that teachers always, by their very nature, have students' best interest at heart. 

Learning is not always easy. Not for anyone. I know this. We all make mistakes and need to work on ourselves in many areas.  Opening our minds, however, should be simple enough.

END NOTE: I have criticized "administrators" here, but it can happen that admin may be the ones pushing teachers to innovate and try new things, instead of teachers trying to do it all on their own. Yes, that is  very possible. My point is, however, that administrators have the power to hire and fire, and teachers who are trying to stay current need support and protection from those who might attack them for trying something new and different.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They've Already Come for the Teachers. Let's Stop it, Now.

"First, they came for the teachers..."

Most people know that line, and attribute or link it to a 1945 statement/poem by Pastor Martin Niemuller, though I can't find that it's truly part of the same. 

At any rate, it is a statement mostly about intellectualism and the rise of the Nazis in Germany; it is also a testament to how when one group is singled out and attacked, other groups must step in and stop the oppression, lest it happen to them next.

"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

and by that time no one was left to speak up."

But it happened to Socrates, too. It happened to Jesus. People who were afraid of the new ideas these teachers were touting came for them in the worst possible way.

Clay Burell, in his blog, "Beyond School," wrote about precisely this, and very well, too. ("When 'Corrupting the Youth' is Good"): 

I had the line, "First, they came for the teachers," on my mind last night, as I see (as I have written, and others have noted before me) many parallels between the distrust of academics and intellectuals and the rise of populism and eventual fascism. (Think back to the Nazi party's rise to power.)

But this problem--the repression of free speech, the distrust of the very people hired to teach children how to think for themselves, the finger-pointing at any teacher who dares to ever comment about what it's really like to teach, what s/he has learned while teaching, and how other teachers can become even better teachers themselves--is not just an American problem.

No, this morning I found mention of a teacher in Scotland who also went through hell for daring to Tweet about how every day is more interesting when there are kids with Asperger's in class.  She meant that as a positive; yet, she was attacked for daring to say it because, you know, it's all identifying, and of course a teacher should never, under any circumstances, speak about his or her work in the classroom. Not on the internet, for the love of God.

Never mind that the internet is how we can all connect with each other and learn from each other and become better people. Never mind that part at all, because there is a certain mindset that says with finality, "Just don't ever talk about anything important or interesting; don't let other people know you think and write and like to share ideas." Idea sharing is much too dangerous!

Keep it in a diary, stupid. Don't show the world that you exist. Never use your own name on anything.

You know what? That's what's stupid--that repressed fear of idea sharing, the idea that people should never call any attention to themselves in any forum. Don't even get me started on it...

Similar problems have come up in South Africa, too, and if you click the link below, you will see that even there, academics are touting the weirdnesses that began here, in the U.S., post 9/11.

It's described as the "Talibanization of American education"--and that, sadly, seems pretty accurate.

They've come for the teachers already. But who are "they?" They are the people who want others to remain blind to the truth of the world, blind to the fact of their own power to change the world for the better.

They are the people who want everyone else to be unquestioning minions so they can stay in control.

Trying to de-unionize teachers is just one step. Trying to "fire all the bad teachers" is another. Sure, there must be bad teachers out there somewhere. I had some, I think. But was I one? That's actually funny. 

I have literally piles of letters from students telling me what they thought of my teaching and how they felt about my classes. I won't be a boring egotist and repeat their lines, but the feedback was, shall we say, very good.

That was heartening, and I truly appreciated it (and it always seemed to come just when I thought my burnout had reached the point of no return).

Now, I want to make sure that other teachers don't have to put up with wack-jobs freaking out on them for things they dare to say in class or out of class. 

I want the smartest, boldest, most interesting people on earth to be teachers of our children. Those people have already--in many cases--been scared away from the profession.

So what's next? Stanching the blood flow. Don't let it get any worse. Don't let them come after any more teachers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I'm Giving It Away for Free: You're Welcome!

For English teachers, social studies teachers and specifically teachers of AP English Language, here's a lesson I created last year (referenced in an earlier blog posting, "Freaky Happenings"). 

Feel free to use it with your own students, but please credit me; this topic makes for a very effective, and, I was told, "captivating" class (or two!) that will get your students thinking and writing. This lesson works best for high school students (I typically taught juniors and seniors), or college freshmen.

Traditionally, discussion of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is used as a way to discuss workers' rights and policies crafted to better ensure workers' safety.

I use this topic because of the myriad powerful images we have that tell the story of this tragic fire. Learning how to synthesize information (text and images) is an important life skill in nearly all disciplines, but specifically in AP English Language courses.

AP English Language & Composition
November 13, 2009

Teacher:  Elizabeth Collins

Topic:  Crafting written arguments based on photographs and photography.

Background and assigned reading for homework:
Chapter 3, Photography. AP / Honors English Language and Composition: ANALYSIS, ARGUMENT & SYNTHESIS, People’s Education.

This lesson comes near the beginning of a unit about Photography. The classes have already seen some other visual images (old advertisements, political cartoons, and WPA photos from the Great Depression), but this lesson brings us back to discussing how to write about visual images, and how to elicit ideas about visuals for use in a synthesis essay (a critical, and especially challenging, part of the AP English Language & Composition exam).

Students just completed an argumentative essay—a more basic assignment—and this new topic will require them to use what they did there (writing with a purpose to argue a particular point, while coming up with a moving rhetorical context and respecting the reader, and portraying one’s own role, as writer, in a credible manner) but also to take these ideas to the next level, in combination with outside sources such as photographs and historical documents.

Purpose of lesson: 
To discuss the impact of photographs, and how photographed images can tell just as much of a story as a thousand written words might.

Students will learn how to determine the context of visual images; how to use inferences about context and observations to write about photographs or other graphics; and how to ascertain the photographer’s role, intention and purpose in the documentation of an experience. They will also start to learn how to synthesize their impressions of visual images with related text.

Goals:  To have students actively involved in brainstorming ideas about visual images that they can use in a written assignment (the next step in our process!).  I want students to come up with good vocabulary that may be used to describe the images they see and discuss today. I also want students to inspire each other  and to ramp up their efforts for this new and challenging next step in our curriculum.

Materials:  Handouts of photographs of the Triangle fire, plus a rallying poster used afterward. Reporter’s account of the fire.

(Images, Google search: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911)

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW). FDRL

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW). FDRL

Political cartoons about the Triangle Fire (very effective tools for helping students "read into" graphics that at first glance may not seem to say much, but, after analysis, are full of ideas and evoke many emotions and reactions.).

Teacher’s Notes:

Background on Triangle Fire (hand out article by William G. Shephard-- 
Also hand out Xerox copies of relevant photographs.)

The site of the Triangle Shirtwaist company is the Asch building in Greenwich Village that is now part of NYU’s campus…

On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out in the upper floors of this garment factory. Many of the young women—most about 15 years old, immigrants, working a low-wage job—inside were working overtime, and thus were still in building when it caught fire.

146 out of 500 workers died because they were trapped inside the factory. The doors were locked—ostensibly to prevent burglary, but also, reportedly, to cut down on “frivolous” bathroom breaks, and many girls jumped to their deaths rather than choose to burn alive.

Those who survived climbed to the roof.

Firetrucks did not have ladders that reached high enough to put out the fire, and the fire escape bent under the weight of people. Efforts to rescue workers were hindered by falling bodies, by too many girls jumping at once, etc.

Although this fire was a great tragedy, and a shocking example of factory owners’ greed and disdain for their workers (and it also illustrated the lack of personal power that workers, especially young working women, had), it also spurred positive change…

Anyone know how?

  • Union rallies against unsafe working conditions
  • Campaigns to investigate factories
  • Passage of important factory safety legislation
The factory owners were tried and sued because so many workers testified they’d been locked in, but a good lawyer for the owners managed to plant enough reasonable doubt in the jury so that they were found not guilty. In the end, they paid only $75 to each grieving family.

Questions for class:

What do you observe in the photographs?  (Teacher can pick and choose any images s/he prefers, though I like some of the photos pasted above) Write down students' ideas on board.

A good selection of images for discussion include:

Cartoon Poster
News photographs

Ask students:

  • Which image seems like the one you might write the most about, were you asked to write?
  • Why?
  • What words might you use to describe the subject matter, action, purpose of the graphic, intent of the artist? 

(Separate class into four groups; have each group tackle on particular image.  Walk around while groups are working, and help them to think of descriptive words and phrases.)

Then come back and share ideas…model upgrading language and brainstorming for students. For example, if a student says that a picture is "sad," gently suggest how to expand on that idea, e.g, "This photograph evokes both anger and sympathy on the part of the viewer; what is most shocking about this image is, perhaps, the unreal look of the girls' dead bodies, twisted in unnatural poses, while authority figures do not even look down. Instead, they are looking up, purportedly watching more girls jump. They don't seem upset--why? Are these deaths inevitable? Do they not care? Is it a hopeless situation?"

If a student says the images "don't look real," the teacher might suggest using words such as " I feel incredulous..." or "...a feeling of incredulity," "surreality," etc. 

All throughout this lesson, teacher should take the basic ideas students blurt out and help guide the class into shaping those initial, brief ideas into more sophisticated language--precisely what students should do in between initial note-taking and reading, and later, the writing of a formal essay or report.

  • Let’s also talk about the anonymous people behind the lens…what assumptions might you make about the photographers?

  • How (do you imagine) might the photographers have been affected by what they saw and documented in the aftermath of this historic and horrible fire?

  • The photographers must remain detached enough to document history, and yet how could they not be troubled by devastating scenes?

  • How do you think the photographers distanced themselves when they took these pictures? How do you distance yourself now, as an observer?

  • How are you affected by these photos?  Are you? Or do they seem unreal?

Let’s now read a reporter’s account of the fire (Shephard piece).

  • Have your ideas about the visual images changed now, or been enhanced?

  • How so?

  • What words, phrases, ideas might you now use to describe what you’ve seen in the visual images that might accompany this article?

Students should begin to see how initial ideas develop (as do photographs) into more profound ideas that can cover much more ground than they originally assumed!

All throughout this lesson, teacher should model how to take ideas and phrases to the next level...

Homework is a fifteen-minute writing exercise such as the one I suggest below:

  • Contrast the act of seeing and writing with the act of composing and taking a photograph. How does photography tell as much in one image as an essay might in two pages? 

After this lesson, students should feel less nervous about writing essays based, in large part, on images such as photos and political cartoons.

Good luck!


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"If America Turns to Fascism, Populism Will Be at Its Heart."

Several months ago, I wrote a book review (see Internet Review of Books and my review of "Fascism: Why Not Here?" by Brian E. Fogarty) about a political history that has made me think ever since.

(Title quote is taken from Fogarty's excellent book.)

Lately, I keep seeing similar ideas popping up--mostly in response to the anti-intellectual, folksy, populist appeal of people such as Sarah Palin and up-and-coming Tea Party types.

Aw, heck, who couldn't appreciate drinkin' a beer with a politician? That's what we want from those guys n' gals. We don't want them to be smarter than us or anythin', right? You betcha.

Call me a snob (and I've been called a "snotty liberal elitist," lately, which I thought was very funny, actually, and it made me laugh an elitist snort of triumph); I really don't care.  

I demand more; I demand wisdom, good ideas, and a wide understanding of international politics as well as history; I demand people who can speak without dropping their g's (because that slangy, folksy gibberish just sounds, frankly, slow).

Working with profoundly gifted kids (as I like to do) is like attending the smartest cocktail party you were ever invited to--sans cocktails. It's a tennis match of fascinating ideas about absolutely everything; it makes me hopeful for the future, and it challenges and amuses me at the same time.

I don't feel that way when I watch any of these populist politicians on the news. Rather, I feel a sinking, ill feeling...could people really be that stupid? Apparently, yes, in some cases, they are.

But I actually think there's a way out: it boils down to education and spreading the truth.

Jon Meacham's editorial this week in NEWSWEEK (7/12/2010, "The Right Kind of American Populism") speaks to exactly the same issues. 

He explains how " the age of [Andrew] Jackson, American populism was about money; later, in the age of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, it became more about culture...Given the clinical economic and political facts of the hour, we should be living through a Jacksonian era of hostility to the rich and the well connected. Those whom Jackson called "the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers" ought to be generating substantial political pressure to exact reparations from, and impose severe new regulations on, the plutocratic few...And yet the pitchforks are being brandished not to encourage government to curb the excesses of the elite but to warn the citizenry that the government has turned into a socialistic threat to free enterprise."

Meacham (with whom I do not always agree) nailed it, I think;  the bottom line is that the "humble members" of society have been inundated with propaganda and fear-mongering lies by the very people who profit by keeping them down.

Will they wake up and realize it and fight back (I mean "fight" in a good way--by voting)?

Will government prove its viability by doing good for the people--finally? 

Maybe if that happens--if people let it happen--they will finally wake up and realize who's really been keeping them poor and oppressed and away from the American Dream. 

Maybe it's the "plutocratic few," but maybe it's also themselves.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Freaky Happenings: Believing in Spirits

(Some of my Twitter friends requested this piece, so here goes:)

It sounds slightly absurd to report this, but I am always losing my left earring. It's as if there is some strange burst of energy on that side of my body, some force constantly flicking my earring out of my ear.

I often come home to find my earring gone for good, or it falls into my lap. Trust me, my left ear-piercing is normal. There is no reason for this to happen.

The left side, in my ear, is also where I once heard a strong voice warn me (very distinctly), "Duck!"

I never use the word "duck." I know what it means, but it is not really part of my everyday vocabulary. The term "duck" (as in, "watch out and get down") seems dated, somehow.

I heard this word spoken softly but firmly in my left ear as I walked on an utterly deserted path by the side of a (strangely empty) road in Westchester County, NY.

I ignored it. What was that supposed to mean? And who could have said it? I must have imagined it. Weird.

Then I heard the voice again--more urgent, almost angry. It was a man's voice. "Duck!"

I looked up to see a battered Chevrolet speeding down the road toward me, weaving wildly. All of a sudden, a heavyset guy stuck his torso out from the backseat window. He was clutching a huge (large watermelon-sized) rock in both hands.

With a savage roar, he whipped it at my head.

I ducked.

The rock--which definitely would have killed me--whizzed over me and fell with an ominous thud on the dirt just behind my back.

So that's why I had been told to duck (and no--the guy hurling the rock at me hadn't given me this warning).

I didn't even think to duck. I just ducked. Which made little sense, because what had just happened was so odd, so uncalled-for, so insane, that I normally would have just stood there, dumbfounded, thinking, "Could this possibly be happening?"

Why would a total stranger try to kill me, some unknown young woman, by shot-putting a small boulder?

I had never really given much thought to guardian angels before hearing the command to "duck" and fatefully avoiding being hit by a large, nasty rock. But I did now.

Even so, I tend to forget about this seminal moment, or others like it. I get absorbed by my own life, my own worries.

When I was fretting about buying a house, and worrying if I'd be approved for a mortgage, I found--one day--an old greeting card lying on the center of my bedroom floor.

This card was from years ago, maybe seven or eight years. It was relatively nondescript, just a basic Hallmark-with-flowers.

The card had been signed by my late great-grandmother (I called her G.G.) It may have been the last time I saw her writing. We didn't really correspond much via mail, and she was 104 when she died, so it was impressive that she was even still signing birthday cards until the end.

I had not pulled this card out recently and looked at it. I hadn't even remembered it at all. I assume it had been jammed in an old file cabinet--and I never open my file cabinets.

But when I saw the card, I knew that G.G. was with me somehow. Watching over me. Trying to ease my mind about the mortgage. (I got my house.)

A few times after that, I came across the card again. I always put it away. It always reappeared on the floor, or my dresser.

One night this past fall, I could not sleep. I was very worried about a teacher observation scheduled for the morning. I did not feel adequately prepared for it, as I'd been so busy that I hadn't had much time to think about a specific new lesson to write.

I got up at 3 a.m. because I suddenly felt alert, awake, and driven to go to my computer and work.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. For some reason, I typed those words into Google.

Why, I am not sure. I don't teach history; I taught AP English Language (among other subjects). I hadn't been thinking about this particular historic event. But I needed strong visual images for a lesson on the interpretation of photos and political cartoons.

What I found amazed me: brilliant posters and murals filled with social commentary. Striking photographs, stark with emotion (see above: it's so harrowing, it seems unreal).

I wrote a good lesson in record time. I got an excellent observation report. (Whew!)

Then I realized the day it was. Friday the 13th. That was my great-grandmother's birthday. She always said it was a lucky day.

And she also told me once--as I interviewed her for a high school report--that her most vivid memory was watching girls jump from the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

My great-grandmother--whose real name was Elsie--was on the street that day, in the midst of the horror. She never forgot it.

When I needed a lesson, she was there for me. Again.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

When the Audience is Into it: "Eclipse" the film (and the book)

Like half of teenage America, probably, I (although I am old) saw "Eclipse" last night. With my daughters. Those children were simply desperate to see the film. 

They both love Taylor Lautner (Jacob--see photo above) with a passion that unnerves me. Aren't they a bit young, I wonder, to have crushes of such seeming intensity? 

He's too old for you; he'll be too old for you for quite a while, I want to say. Plus, the character isn't real. Plus, I am sure it's a fair bet that Hollywood will have corrupted him--if not already, certainly by then--not that you'll ever get to actually meet him...oh, never mind. 

Some things (like Jacob, like Santa Claus) are too complicated to explain--especially without ruining some important part of childhood magic. 

Let them have their Jacob crushes. I had a Leif Something crush when I was young. I can't even remember Leif's last name, at this point. But I do remember he was nowhere near as exciting to me as Taylor Lautner is to my kids.

In our house, we have Jacob posters on the girls' bedroom walls. They own too-big Jacob T-shirts. Before we got to the movie, one of my kids insisted on writing "Team Jacob" on her cheek with a lipstain pen that lives in a cupholder in my car…but she was looking in the mirror when she did this, so of course it came out backward: bocoJ meaT in shimmery plum. 

I should have taken a picture; it was hysterical. She rubbed it off, laughing and blushing furiously despite her stained right cheek.

I myself sort of prefer Edward, which causes some division (but honestly, I do not really care that much either way. I am, thus, Team Switzerland).

What I notice when I watch the films is that even though the Bella-Jacob dynamic gets screen time, the romantic tension here does not really exist in the movies, not the way it does in the books. 

I like both of the actors who play these roles, and I appreciate both of the characters, but together, I think they have as much positive chemistry as petroleum and saltwater.  Or, maybe even a tank of tropical fish and a bottle of bleach.

When Bella tells Jacob to kiss her and he does, she looks as though she is putting up with a tooth pulling.  Jacob, for his part, is pushing the Who Wouldn't Want to Kiss Me? Look How Well I Kiss; Look at my Varied Kissing Moves! thing a bit too far, in my opinion.

What I told my daughter--who seemed a bit disappointed that Bella is so sure, in "Eclipse" the film, that she doesn't have the hots for Jacob in any way (even though Jacob insists he knows she does, but just won't admit it--which I think is a weird thing to keep saying, at least in terms of screenwriting)--is that the books really explore the life Bella could have with Jacob. In the book(s), she is truly torn at some points.

The movies can't cover this in the same way, I guess. 

No, "Eclipse" was all about Edward pushing Bella to marry him, and an elaborate proposal, etc., that was the Old-Fashioned/Fairy Tale Fantasy...and mostly unrealistic.

"Oh. My. God. There's water coursing down my cheeks! This is so touching! I'm a guy, and I need a tissue so bad. So bad!" the kid behind me was saying--(good actor), though I knew he was joking.

As a parent, I can appreciate the "values" contained implicitly within the Twilight series, but sometimes, it does get a bit saccharine.

YA is a difficult balance that way (and I realize that the author of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, is Mormon, and has a certain, shall we say, worldview). It's a perennial (or contemporary, rather) problem: should premarital sex ever happen, or if it does, should it be glossed over, or should it be completely condemned as morally wrong?

I write YA, too, but I generally don't find YA sex scenes to be appropriate, especially since YA is usually read by pre-teens.

At the same time, though, I can see that it is more honest to write about people, even youngish people, having sex. It's just realistic. It is especially honest when it's written as disappointing, demoralizing, full-of-remorse and what did I do's?

Writing YA filled with hyper-magical, too-perfect sex actually does more of a disservice to teens, I think (and that will come later in this particular book series, although I think it is written in an extraordinarily vague way, and it also comes attached to marriage...)

Sex or no sex (and there’s no sex here), the Twilight books and films can be steamy, or borderline-so. Bella and Edward certainly do have chemistry. You can tell the actors really do like each other, and that’s cute.

Still, as Jacob even says in the film, “…I’m hotter.” The audience roared.

When Jacob was injured by a vampire and phased back into his human body, some young woman actually screamed, “He’s naked! Jacob’s naked!” Again, everyone in the theatre lost it.

I remember they lost it, too, when Jacob first appeared onscreen (in the last film),  shirtless. Even the grown-ups were screaming.

The books, as usually happens, are better than the films (and the books are imperfect, too, though enjoyable), but seeing “Eclipse” was an experience that gave me material…and my eldest is now plowing through the series, and anything that gets kids reading is wonderful, in my opinion.