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For Me, the Force Was with George

Posted May 4, 2014 By Dave Thomer

So here it is, May 4, Star Wars Day. And if you figured a day that combines celebrating Star Wars fandom with a pun would be right up my alley, you’ve stayed on target. My daughter and I are both wearing Star Wars T-shirts today, and later on we might watch one of the movies, or play the X-Wing Miniatures Game, or maybe a few rounds of Lego Star Wars on the Wii. One thing I won’t be doing, though, is getting hyped up for the start of production on Episode VII. Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, my interest in the future of Star Wars has waned. It appears that as much as I have been a fan of Star Wars, I was more of a fan of George Lucas and what he accomplished with the franchise.

That’s not to say I’ve liked everything that’s come down the pike since 1977. I could go on at great lengths about the special editions, the flat acting that Lucas apparently asked for and received in the prequels, and the unconvincing Anakin/Padme romance. I think that he made some unfortunate decisions that hurt members of his audience, like the Neimoidian accents in Episode I that sounded way too much like Asian caricatures of the past or the sidelining of Padme in Episode III. But a lot of his choices I did like, and more than that I was happy with the fact that he had the opportunity to make them.

For me, the story of George Lucas and Star Wars is the story of someone who was stubborn enough to bet on himself time after time, and in the process did something incredible. Now, I admit that I picked up a lot of the history from official, Lucas-sanctioned sources, but I have read other sources as well and I haven’t seen anything that contradicts the overall story. Lucas used the money he had earned from American Graffiti to continue preproduction on Star Wars even while 20th Century Fox was delaying on signing the final contracts. With those delays and the success of Graffiti, Lucas could have negotiated a higher salary for himself. Instead, he negotiated for the sequel and merchandising rights. When Star Wars was a huge hit, he decided to finance the sequel himself rather than sell the rights back to Fox. The Empire Strikes Back and the four movies that followed were independent blockbuster tentpole films, a vategory that I think they have all to themselves.

And with the money that came from Star Wars, Lucas built a number of companies that helped to innovate the technical side of making movies and telling stories, such as Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and THX. Some of the things he launched didn’t become successful until after they left Lucas, such as Pixar and the EditDroid system. Some, like the LucasArts gaming company, flourished for a while and then faltered. But I think it’s an admirable track record, and one that I don’t think any of Lucas’ peers from the 1970s filmmaking scene have emulated. And that’s no knock on them – maybe Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese never wanted to be entrepreneurs. But I admire Lucas a lot for forging his own path, which he kept doing right up until he sold Lucasfilm. The last film he produced, Red Tails, was a film he spent two decades trying to make happen, until he decided to put up the money himself. That’s a special kind of stubborn right there.

So my admiration for Lucas mixed with my enjoyment of the Star Wars movies and universe, and each enhanced the other. As a speculative fiction fan, I’m surrounded by creations I love whose creators were ill-treated by the corporations that owned the work. While I know that Lucas was helped by a legion of artists whose work he then owned, he was the creator and the investor, and thus he avoided the fate of Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby or Bill Finger or even Gene Roddenberry or J. Michael Straczynski. He didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to tell the story he wanted to tell the way he wanted to tell it. So even if I didn’t like the story all the time, I respected the storyteller.

Now, Episode VII and any future movies aren’t being made because George Lucas has a story he wants to tell. They’re being made because Disney wants to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy plenty of stories that are told from that motivation. But the unique magic of Star Wars is gone now. If I want a Disney-owned media-spanning fictional universe, I already have Marvel. If I want J.J. Abrams to combine old and new actors to revive a space-based adventure series, I already have Star Trek. With George Lucas, Star Wars gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Without him, it’s just another corporate entertainment franchise, and that’s not enough to thrill me.

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Not About Me

Posted May 1, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remember being in grad school and frequently being frustrated in classes where the professor didn’t say a lot. This was especially true in political science courses, where I was trying to catch up with a lot of literature on democracy and political institutions that was really interesting, but a bit out of my background. (I took a couple of poli sci classes as an undergrad, but decided not to major in it for a variety of reasons.) I figured that the prof had spent a lot more time studying and thinking about the literature and the subject than I had, or than my classmates had, and in that two or three seminar window, I wanted to use that resource to streamline my own knowledge-building as much as possible. I had done the reading, I had my own thoughts and criticisms, and if someone else had either made them or refuted them, that would be very helpful. I had questions about how the research in the reading had been followed-up upon, and the prof was far more likely to know of the rest of the literature than I was. Now, it’s possible that I was, and am, too likely to defer to experts and credentials. But in my mind, that expert with that credential was the reason I was paying money to take that class and not just getting a reading list on my own and finding a discussion group on the Internet.

I think about this a lot these days because now that I am a teacher, I have to make a conscious effort not to simply be the kind of teacher that I liked most when I was a student. Don’t get me wrong, I take a lot of my inspiration from my own teachers and try to steal as many tricks from the good ones as I can. But not every student is looking for an explainer, or a source of lousy puns, or whatever I was looking for from my teachers. And they deserve the best I can give them, too. They might deserve it, and need it, even more than the students who are more on my wavelength. (And I may be going out onto a very thin branch with this whole “deserving” theme, because I don’t want to suggest that some students are less deserving of a good education, but bear with me for a minute.)

The thing is, I kind of hit a certain genetic/environment jackpot, in that the things I was good at and interested in as a kid are the things that society was going to force me to do anyway. And the things that I was less skilled at and less interested in were things that society let me pursue or abandon as I saw fit. I like reading, I like memorizing stuff, I like writing, and so on. So the fact that I had to do this for seven hours a day didn’t bug me too much, and overall society has rewarded me for this. If, on the other hand, I had been forced to spend seven hours a day exercising and learning how to play various sports, I might have been a little crankier and inclined to slack off. When I literally batted .000 during a season playing baseball for the local Y, I just stopped playing, spent more time reading, and that was that. Students who don’t like school or have less developed “school skills” don’t have the option of leaving the history team to spend more time on their basketball homework. It’s important for me to keep a strong sense of empathy, look for ways to make the history team work a little better, and be the teacher that they need, not the teacher that my current vision of my 14-yer-old self wanted.

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I’ve been waiting to write about the mistrial in the Jordan Davis murder trial because I have been hoping to hear something about the jury’s deliberations. The jurors agreed that Michael Dunn was responsible for firing 10 shots at Davis’ car and endangering the three other people who were in the car. They agreed that he was criminally wrong to do so. But they could not agree that beyond any reasonable doubt he was criminally responsible for murdering Davis.

I have so many questions about that. Was there a single holdout on the jury, or an even split? Was there something about Florida’s self-defense laws that proved to be a sticking point? Did the jurors believe Dunn when he said he saw a weapon?

The thing is, all of these questions are technicalities. They’re important technicalities. They’re technicalities that we need to understand so that we can intelligently work to reform self-defense laws, weapons laws, and other parts of the criminal justice system. But they don’t do a damn thing to address the hurt and pain that I have seen on Twitter and commentaries across the web. For millions of people, the fact that Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison if the guilty verdicts are upheld pales next to the fact that the jury could not deliver the simple, clear statement that Dunn murdered Davis.

That’s the part that hurts me, that has me feeling so lost right now. Because at the moment, I have a lot of sympathy for that jury. Our legal system is not always set up to deliver straightforward statements; sometimes you have to read between the lines. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. Plenty of people get busted for obstruction and not for the actual crime they committed. So if there was something that made it hard for the jury to make the specific point about Davis’ death, they were still able to make the point that what Dunn did was horribly wrong and that he needs to pay for his actions. There are people like Martin Longman at Booman Tribune who see that point and accept the verdict as adequate, albeit imperfect, justice.

My initial reaction to the verdict was along similar lines. Based on the evidence that I have read, I am pretty sure that Dunn is both racist and reckless, and that those two traits combined with a gun to result in a horrible death that is Dunn’s fault. I could also see how that same racism and recklessness could lead him to panic, and that in that panic he could suddenly believe that he was the one at risk. I wasn’t surprised that under Florida’s laws, some jurors might find that panic enough to raise reasonable doubt. I thought that this was another example of how our gun laws and self-defense laws can lead to tragic results, and felt relief that the verdict found another route to punish Dunn.

But then there are so many people like Tonyaa Weathersbee who see that verdict as a “hollow victory,” and ask what would have happened if Davis had been alone in his car. The mistrial speaks so loudly to them that no appeal to the end result can take away the pain. The deadlock calls out so loudly that no discussion of technicalities can make sense of the senseless. I did not have that immediate emotional reaction to the verdict, because I did not hear the same thing that they heard. But just because I did not hear what they heard does not mean that it wasn’t there. Indeed, the fact that so many people heard it makes me sure it was there, even if the jury didn’t mean for it to be there.

I’m grateful that Twitter and the educator communities that I belong to helped raise those voices up so that it was easier for me to hear them. I’ve been asking myself why I don’t see the verdict through the same lens that they do. It might be privilege. It might be my philosophical background leading me to view the verdict as an epistemological exercise. It might be my own experiences as a juror, when I have been torn between what I believed happen and what I believed the law required. It’s probably a combination of these and half a dozen other factors.

But beyond any of that, we live in a society that has a legacy of injustice. That legacy infects us in so many ways, frequently with tragic results. We need to confront that injustice every day. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where there are no Michael Dunns with their fear and anger towards others. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where the American justice system is not stacked against a significant part of its population. But we have to try or we will never stop inflicting these wounds on ourselves and each other.

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Educon Presentation: Supporting Democracy Beyond Content

Posted January 26, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I will be leading a conversation about how our schools can support democracy at EduCon in about an hour. I may edit this post with some reflections after the fact, but for now I want to make sure there’s an easily accessible link to the Google documents we’ll be using.

Here’s the slide set.

Here’s a document for sharing visions and definitions of democracy.

Here’s a document for sharing ideas about the skills citizens need in a democracy.

Here’s a document for planning some changes we can make to our schools and communities to help people build those skills.

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As intrigued as I am by the possibilities of crowdfunding, so far my only foray into the waters of Kickstarter and similar sites has been my support of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s new album. I’ve already discussed how much I’ve enjoyed New Constellation, but in November I had the chance to enjoy another fruit of that support. The band was playing at the Keswick Theatre right outside Philadelphia, and not only did I have tickets, but I had the chance to attend the soundcheck and meet the band. This would mark my fourth time seeing the band, but for my concertgoing companion it would be the first. My daughter had taken quite a liking to New Constellation and some of the band’s more famous hits, so this show would be her first pop music concert.

When we got to the theater, a few other Kickstarter supporters were waiting. Shortly after, we entered the theater. It was my first time at the Keswick, which is a very nice theater that feels very comfortable and sounds great. The band was playing “Rare Bird” from the new album, and in the theater it sounded better than I remembered from the studio version. When lead singer Glen Phillips asked if we wanted to hear anything in particular, another fan quickly called for “Throw It All Away,” from 1997’s Coil. I like that song well enough, but I kind of regretted that I didn’t have a lesser-known favorite of my own ready to throw out there.

After another song we moved into the theater lobby and got to talk to members of the band. They were very friendly and open. Phillips talked about his family and fondness for his hometown of Santa Barbara. It’s always good to be reminded that even musicians who have sold millions of records have lives to live when they walk off the stage. He and Alex chatted for a few minutes, and we also had a chance to talk to bassist Dean Dinning. I got to tell the story of how I became a fan of the band in the early ’90s, when the owner of the comic book store that I shopped at gave me the CD single for “Walk on the Ocean.” It was the B-side from that single, “All in All,” that really grabbed me. When I gave my own copy of the CD to Dinning to sign, he echoed my reaction to the song, saying that it definitely would have been a good choice to go on an album.

We left the theater to get some dinner, and when we returned we took our seats two rows back from the stage. When Toad opened up with “The Moment,” one of my favorite songs from the new album, Alex and I sang along. As great as the music was, the experience was even better because I could share it with my daughter. It also helped that she was really enjoying it, and not just consenting to be dragged to some Meaningful Father-Daughter Experience. On that score, by coincidence, Phillips used Skype to play a cover of Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” for his daughter, who was celebrating her birthday. So there was definitely a theme to the evening.

Alex and I saw that other fans were noticing how well she knew the songs, especially the new ones. I think that when you’re a fan of something that’s been around for a while, it makes you feel good to see that people are still discovering and enjoying the thing that means so much to you. That’s particularly true when the zeitgeist seems like it may have moved on; I think that just as the band has been reinvigorated by recording new material, it’s nice for me to feel like I’m not only trying to preserve a moment from my teens in amber. If other fans feel similarly, I’m not surprised that they would smile when they see a younger fan picking up the torch.

Had I been picking the setlist, I don’t think I would have done a better job of choosing songs. (Maybe I would found a way to work “Fly from Heaven” from Dulcinea in there.) Phillips introduced one of my favorites, “Windmills,” by talking up drummer Randy Guss’ intro, which led Guss to cut said intro short and say, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” In my memory, Phillips and Dinning used this opportunity to start bantering about the literary symbolism of Guss’ multitude of drum solos, but that might have happened at a different point in the show. Either way, Phillips was in good form talking to the audience, including a quick recovery from accidentally saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “Philadelphia.” (To establish that he understood the difference, Phillips described cheesesteaks as “world-famous” while saying that Primanti Bros. were, well, we’ll just say less well-known.)

Right after “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” which Alex and I both enjoy a lot, Alex called out “Play ‘California Wasted!’” Even from our close seats, I doubt the band heard her, but nonetheless, Phillips promptly said something like, “And now, here’s ‘California Wasted.’” Not only was the band playing one of our favorite songs from the new album, my daughter had successfully called for a song on her very first attempt. I’ve been going to concerts for 20 years, and I don’t think I can remember that happening when the artist hadn’t specifically asked for requests.

After the show ended, Alex wanted to wait in the autograph line because I hadn’t been able to get guitarist Todd Nichols to sign my CD. As we moved past the band and told them how much we enjoyed the show, Dinning greeted Alex and said, “I saw you out there!” We told him about her successful call-out, which he seemed to enjoy. Then, with my autographs in hand, we left the theater.

We did get one photograph with the band, but my iPod camera made it look like it had been run through a couple of Photoshop filters. Then again, the last lines of “Walk on the Ocean,” which also closed out the concert, seem fitting:

Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold
That grow sweeter each season, as we slowly grow old

Here’s to more music, and more memories, in the seasons to come.

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First Thoughts on Implementing Genius Hour

Posted January 3, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I’ve wanted to emphasize project-based learning in my teaching since before I knew that project-based learning was the term for what I wanted to emphasize. One challenge I have faced is that while my school has been supportive of the use of projects, they have not been a central focus of the administration’s pedagogical philosophy. Combined with the need to cover a certain amount of content to keep up with district’s planning timeline, I haven’t felt like I was tapping project-based learning’s potential to help students build their inquiry skills. This year, with the support of my principal, I’ve started to incorporate an idea I discovered through the educators’ community on Twitter: Genius Hour.

Genius Hour is based on the idea of 20% Time that has become fairly well known in the business world thanks to its use at tech companies such as Google. The idea is that employees are allowed to spend a certain amount of their time on the job using the company’s resources to work on projects that they developed and believe might benefit the company. Google products like Gmail were initially developed as independent 20% Time projects. Educators looked at the idea and figured that if getting to work on projects of their own design was good for employees, why wouldn’t it be good for students? So the idea is to spend one class period a week in which the students do exactly that.

I began keeping an eye on the weekly Genius Hour chats on Twitter, and looked at the Genius Hour wikispace set up by some of the participants. In November, at the start of the second marking period, I introduced the assignment to my students. To provide structure, I had the students complete a proposal that would tie their project area to one of four themes that we have been exploring this year: 1) military power; 2) economic power; 3) political power; or 4) cultural power. This gave students a lot of room, as the proposals I received indicated. One student wanted to explore the history of the Internet, another wanted to write raps about Barack Obama’s career, and another wanted to create a comic book about the Revolutionary War. Over the last couple of months, some of these projects have really developed into a deep exploration of a subject.

The biggest challenge that my students and I have encountered in implementing Genius Hour is that when you are not used to the independence and depth of inquiry that come with project-based learning, it’s easy to feel lost. I had prepared a couple of reference sheets that I thought would be helpful. The first week I asked students to come up with a week-by-week plan that would serve as a set of benchmarks along with the proposal. But a lot of students were not used to taking a big question and breaking it down into smaller questions, so they had trouble taking the big task of an independent project and breaking it down into smaller tasks that were more specific than “I will get information about my topic.”

So I need to raise my game in terms of helping the students form their initial questions and then proceed from there. I may even have a fairly structured week of lessons that leads up the start of the independent time. I’m going to go back to the Teaching for Understanding framework that I worked with when I was getting my certification, because I believe it will help both the students and me to work backwards from our goals to plotting the clearest path to those goals. I was also happy to see this graphic on Twitter:

The second reference sheet I created was to help students keep track of sources. With so many different sources of information accessible through search engines and other references, students often need help developing and navigating a network of trustworthy sources. What I think I will do next semester is combine these reference sheets and add some other resources to create an ongoing journal, and then have the journal turned in as part of the final project.

Overall, I’m pleased with our first attempt at Genius Hour, and looking forward to improving the process for students in the months to come.

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I Can Still See Where I Am – Dada at The Note

Posted January 2, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remarked earlier in the year that four bands were really important to me in the early 90s as I graduated from high school and went off to college: R.E.M., Matthew Sweet (all right, three bands and a solo artist), Toad the Wet Sprocket, and dada. While I have managed to see the first three live numerous times, for various reasons the closest I got to dada was being able to catch a three-song set that they played at the Tower Records near my house, back when there was a Tower Records near my house. (Since they played “Surround,” one of my all-time favorite tracks, I considered myself lucky.) But when the band announced that they would be playing in West Chester on the day before my birthday as part of their tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album Puzzle, I decided that I had to take the plunge and cross “See a full dada show live” off of my Lifetime To Do List.

So I figured out how to get from work out to West Chester via public transit and eventually found my way to The Note, a a bar with a stage and a decent amount of standing room as well as a balcony with couches and chairs. One virtue of not drinking is that I spent no time at the bar and was able to get right up the stage. From there, there was nothing to do but wait. The bar clearly knew its target audience – or at least it knew I was coming. Once upon a time, I would title whichever mixtape had my favorite songs Daves Rich Pageant; now I have a 25-song playlist on my iPod with the same name. Within half an hour of my arrival at The Note, the sound people had played three songs from Daves Rich Pageant among the mix of 90s alt-rock selections. I had come to this show in part because as a 17-year-old, I had been unable to. I was already starting to feel a little bit like the place had been waiting for me.

The opening artist, Anna Rose, was definitely talented, and her opening song “Behold a Pale Horse” still sticks in my memory. Lots of the audience was still trickling in or hanging out at the bar, but those in the audience who were listening seemed to like what they were hearing. At around 10, dada took the stage. I was standing pretty close to dead center so I had a great view of drummer Phil Leavitt as he began to play, followed by bassist Joie Calio and finally guitarist Michael Gurley. As their opening jam took shape, I was pretty sure that they were getting ready to open with “Posters,” but they weren’t in any rush to get there. And that was just fine. I can’t really describe the start of the show and do it justice, but I can share this YouTube video of the band doing a similar intro in Atlanta earlier in the tour:

I’ve said a lot of times that recorded music is one of the greatest cultural bargains we have. I could buy the tracks that were played that night for around the same price as my ticket, and listen to them over and over again. In fact, I have. But to be a few feet away from the band as they made the music happen is an entirely different experience, and before Gurley sang a word I was already chalking that bus ride up as time well spent. I wish I could describe the joy I felt when Gurley, and the crowd, sang the opening line to “Posters.” I’ve said before that being a fan of something forms a bond with other fans; at that moment I was at home in a room full of strangers.

The band segued from “Posters” right into “Dim,” the single that got me to purchase Puzzle in the first place. As they reached the end, I thought to myself that if for some reason the band had to walk off the stage at that moment, I would still be a a satisfied ticket-buyer. Fortunately, they played until around midnight, which surprised me a little bit. When I had checked the setlists for the band’s other shows, they had run to around 14 or 15 songs. What I hadn’t taken into account is how much the band was willing to depart from the studio versions of songs in the course of the live performance. Not only did they insert interludes into several songs, but when Gurley wanted to adjust his pedals or check on something in the sound mix, Leavitt and Calio would just start to jam, and Gurley would join in as he completed his fine-tuning.

When I was younger, I didn’t give nearly enough credit to the actual playing of music. In my head, the musicians had to have the skill to follow the songwriter’s script, but I did not appreciate that the act of interpreting a song and bringing it to life in the moment is a fantastically creative act in and of itself. Fortunately, I had already become wiser in my old age, but if I hadn’t, watching dada play would have kicked the light bulb on for sure. It doesn’t hurt that the members of dada write great songs, of course, but even when they’re doing other material, such as the cover of “California Dreamin’” that they have performed a lot on this tour, you know that they’re a great band.

At a couple of points during the show, Leavitt thanked the audience for the years we have spent following the band. For myself, I can certainly say it’s been my pleasure. And hopefully I won’t wait 20 years before I see them again.

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So in the past couple of weeks, my daughter has discovered Horrible Histories, a British television program based on a series of books. It’s basically a sketch comedy program that takes historical fact as its source material. As a result, my daughter has a far better understanding of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties than I do. My wife has the theme song to one recurring bit, called “Stupid Deaths,” stuck in her head.

My daughter has been watching these episodes on YouTube because they are region-blocked at the BBC’s website. It’s not the first time I have thought to myself that I would gladly write the BBC a check for the television license fee if I could have access to all the stuff they put up for streaming.

It also has me thinking about how effective comedy can be as a teaching device, at least as an entry point. You probably need to have at least some interest in the topic in order to really get the humor, but if something makes you laugh then maybe that will spark your interest in going further. There are jokes or bits of physical comedy that I’ve done in class that students talk to me about later – this year’s seniors have made several references to the song-and-dance I did to They Might Be Giants’ version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” when they were 9th graders. I just wish I were a better, and funnier, writer. Or that I had a staff to help me come up with 180 bits a year. :)

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Pride in One School, Sadness for Another

Posted December 11, 2013 By Dave Thomer

So last week turned out to be an interesting one in my life as an alumnus.

At the start of week I read that Fordham University – where I met my wife, first studied philosophy, and first coined the title that graces this blog – had changed the lyrics of its alma mater from “Hail men of Fordham” to “Hail Rams of Fordham.” I smiled when I read this. I smiled a lot, actually, and it might seem strange to be so happy about something that isn’t really a big deal. Truth be told, I don’t ever remember singing the alma mater, and probably wouldn’t get the words right if you spotted me the first verse.

But I think that fact that it is a small thing is what made it matter to me. I watch my daughter when she encounters something that assumes that male terms can be used as gender-neutral, and I see that it upsets her to be made to feel left out. There is now one less thing in the world that can upset her that way, and the university that helped me build so much of the foundation for my life is responsible for that. Fordham’s administration didn’t have to do it, and there are going to be people who are mad at them for doing it, and they did it anyway because they decided it was the right thing to do. I felt proud to be associated with the institution, and felt like my good feelings and support for the university were being returned.

In contrast, by the weekend, the Philadelphia media were reporting that Holy Ghost Prep, the high school that I graduated from and without which I never would have made it to Fordham or taken advantage of the opportunities I found when I got there, had fired a teacher. The reason for the dismissal was that the teacher, who had not hidden the fact that he was in a same sex relationship during the 12 years he taught at Holy Ghost, had applied for a marriage license in New Jersey with his partner. That violation of Church policy warranted firing an alumnus who had taught at the school for over a decade.

I watched the story spread over the Philadelphia media and beyond throughout the weekend. More significantly I saw it spread through my Facebook network, which includes many of my classmates. Many of us, whether we are straight or gay, were disappointed by the decision. I suppose it’s easy for me to disagree with it; I’m a marriage equality supporter who has moved even farther away from the Catholic Church than I was when I was in school. And as a teacher of high school students, I see how a lot of casual homophobia gets thrown around in the way students talk to each other, which makes me more conscious of how a school needs to support its LGBT students and make sure that they know that they belong and are valued.

But you shouldn’t need my experience or my distance from the Church to imagine how this hurts people, and in fact you don’t. On Holy Ghost’s website, the school promotes its dedication to forming a community in one heart and one mind. No community is perfect, but I have been a part of that community for over 20 years. I formed relationships there that I will always treasure and had experiences that formed me. Many of the students and teachers there inspired me to become a teacher myself. And this weekend I watched the leaders of the administration tell members of my community that they weren’t welcome, that their lives and their loves weren’t good enough for the Catholic Church or for Holy Ghost Prep. I watched the leaders of the administration tell any gay students that they had better be willing to deny part of themselves if they wanted to be fully included.

It isn’t right. Where Fordham University as an institution helped bring its community closer together this past week, Holy Ghost Prep as an institution chose to divide it. It will be a long time before I can forgive the institution for that. But I have seen many in the community express their opposition to the decision, including several who have supported an online petition against it. It’s a shame that many students and teachers seem to have learned the lessons Holy Ghost taught better than its leaders, but at least I can still say I am proud to be among them.

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In my education politics news roundup this week, I noted that the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has endorsed U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. Without knowing any of the internal discussions or consideration that led to this decision, I think this was a mistake, and I hope that my union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, does not replicate it.

When a group like a union makes a political endorsement, I believe it is trying to accomplish two things. One, it wants the see that the winner of the race is someone who is already inclined to support the same things that it wants. Two, it wants the winner of the race to feel like it helped the winner to win, so that the winner will continue to be responsive to the group’s desires. I think these are both appropriate things to do, given our electoral and political system. There are always tradeoffs to be made in policymaking, and interest groups are constantly competing to make sure that they are on the right side of those tradeoffs. It would be foolish to assume that any officeholder is an automaton who can somehow make policy decisions from a position of true neutrality, so competition of interest groups is what we have.

Given those two needs, I have been wondering what Schwartz brings to the table that other Democratic candidates do not. I have lived in Schwartz’s district since before she won the seat, and I honestly do not remember education being a particularly vital issue in her campaigns. My own mental associations with Schwartz are more focused on women’s rights and health care issues, along with a slight tendency toward the moderate side of the Democratic economic spectrum. But my memory might be faulty, so I tried to find some examples that Schwartz is a strong supporter of the kinds of education policies that would benefit teachers and students in districts like Pittsburgh.

Charter school expansion tends to be a hot-button issue within Democratic circles, with some Democrats more inclined to favor creating more charter schools and others opposed. Since the charter school funding system is one of the major things that have contributed to Philadelphia’s funding problems, I did a Google search for “Allyson Schwartz charter schools.” In ten pages of results, I found a number of stories relating to the current campaign, but the only thing I found about Schwartz’s record on education was that she voted in favor of a Republican-authored bill called the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act. This bill, which did not pass the Senate, “encourages states to support the development and expansion of charter schools,” according to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Granted, it passed 365-54, so it’s not like it was a contentious vote. But the National Education Association did oppose the measure, so at the very least I would say that Schwartz was not being a leader on the issue from the public school side.

Again, I don’t put a lot of stock in this one vote. I do put stock in the fact that this was the only story I found about Schwartz and charter schools. Furthermore, in the Pittsburgh union’s press release, the union does not cite any particular action that Schwartz has taken in her congressional or state legislative career to show leadership on the issue of education. I did another search on “Allyson Schwartz health care,” and within two pages of results I found articles citing her role in developing tax credits for medical research and an interview where she discussed her work on health care in Congress. At the end of that interview, she was asked about her priorities and she said:

Fiscal responsibility. This government has borrowed and spent money we simply don’t have. We need to work toward a balanced budget to reduce debt because if we don’t, we’ll leave it to our children and grandchildren. Restoring integrity, finding common ground, facing challenges from economic competitiveness to access to health care, to safety in the world; those are the broad themes I’m interested in. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, I will play a role in expanding access to health care and making sure we meet our commitment to seniors and to reimburse our hospitals and physicians. I’ve also been engaged in some of the issues around energy – I have some legislation to promote energy efficient commercial buildings and also dealing with global warming and energy independence.

Do you see education anywhere in that paragraph? I don’t. Now compare the Health Care issue page (t pages of updates) on her congressional website with the Education issue page (two pages of updates). Which one looks like it’s been a priority during her time in Washington?

Now, even if Schwartz hasn’t been a leader on education while in Congress, I could understand endorsing her if she had come out with a strong position on education that set her above all of the other candidates. But I don’t see how that’s true either. The union’s release cites the education plan that she recently released that would push to expand access to pre-K and reverse the Corbett budget cuts. Those are certainly good things, but Schwartz expects to take a long time to accomplish either task – she’s clearly not making it a day one priority. Again, looking at her website and Twitter feed, she doesn;t seem to be talking about education very much.

Other candidates have been much more forceful in talking about education. Former environmental protection secretary John Hanger has made multiple tours of the state in a school bus; participated in a hunger strike over Philadelphia budget cuts; has constantly highlighted the poor academic record of cyber charter schools that drain funds from districts; and made reversing the Corbett cuts a centerpiece of his economic plan. State Treasurer Rob McCord has been talking about public education since the second he got into the race last month, and although he has not released a plan he did answer the Keystone Politics questionnaire which goes into detail on education. Former revenue secretary Tom Wolf has highlighted the education issue on his website. To me, any of these three candidates are better choices for a candidate who will emphasize public education in the upcoming campaign and (hopefully the administration to follow.

So what is the Pittsburgh union hoping to achieve with this endorsement? Again, I have no inside knowledge, but I wonder if it’s not along the lines of my second reason. Schwartz is currently the leader in many polls for the primary. By getting on board with her campaign now, perhaps the Pittsburgh union is hoping that they will have some clout if she becomes governor. If that is the reason, I think it is shortsighted politically. Organizations like EMILY’s List backed Schwartz very early. If she wins, those are the groups that will have the most pull. If union support could help push someone like Hanger or McCord into the lead, then those candidates would have much more reason to be supportive once elected. Endorsing a front-runner is a low-risk, low-reward move. Endorsing someone who comes from behind is higher-risk, but high-reward. Given the state of public education in Pennsylvania, I think we need to take some chances and make some bold moves.

Let me make something clear here. I am not attacking Schwartz. If she wins the nomination, I will absolutely support her against Corbett. But in a primary election, you have room to dream a little and push for your ideal candidate, not the one that your party has agreed on. If I were a health care organization or a women’s rights organization, I would probably be breaking down doors to support her campaign. But while I see Schwartz as a decent candidate for education, I don’t see her as a great one. And right now, finding and supporting a great candidate for education should be a priority for every teacher and education advocate in this state.

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