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Learning to Translate from Wonk

Posted April 6, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I mentioned earlier that I am teaching a class of 12th graders the AP US Government course.

On one level, I am in my element. All the minutiae of government and politics that I have absorbed since I checked out a book about American presidents from the library in third grade can finally be put to use!

On another level, this is dangerous. I’m trying to package 30 years of reading and experience in a way that high school students who aren’t as fascinated by the government as I am will find relevant and interesting enough to absorb.

I also have mixed feelings about a class that is so expressly focused on performing well on a standardized test. It’s a standardized test that can result in my students getting college credit, which can be a huge academic and financial reward, so it certainly helps with the motivation. But it’s an external motivation.

I try to do the best I can to provide resources and assistance with the material. It’s only my first year, so now that I have taught the course once I think I can do a lot better next year and improve the materials I developed. For example, we’re doing case studies this month to stud how the government has operated in specific cases, and I’d really like to curate a set of readings and have them available on the web early on. Right now I’m doing the initial searching and photocopying a small number of the readings so that I don’t throw too much material out at once. Give me the summer and the chance to hit the ground running and I think we’ll be on to something.

Work in progress that it is, I think the course has been a success this year. I’ve heard students say that they understand what they’re hearing on the news, and talking about how voting in midterm elections is important. (I probably could have flown home under my own power that day.) Most of the credit belongs to the students, who have brought their questions to bear on some fairly dry topics at times. That is, when they don’t steer us completely off topic. But then some of those times have been some of the best conversations of the year.)

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Evening Walk Musical Interlude

Posted April 5, 2015 By Dave Thomer

Had a great time at Easter brunch with my family. There was a lot of bacon.

This evening I took a walk around the corner to get something for Pattie, so I took the opportunity to listen to Neil Finn’s “Flying in the Face of Love,” from his recent album Dizzy Heights. It’s nice to hear that man still has his fastball so far into his career. (Can I use a baseball analogy with a musician from New Zealand?) If this track doesn’t put some pep in your step, you probably shouldn’t take any musical recommendations from me.

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Too Old for This Sort of Thing

Posted April 4, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I’ll be turning 40 this year, which my mother has told me I am not allowed to mention around her.

Meanwhile, my daughter will turn 13.

Not sure if the universe is trying to tell me something there.

At the moment, the biggest thing about the round number is that I won’t have to pause for a second to do the math when someone asks me how old I am. I don’t feel a midlife crisis coming on yet, but I should probably go back and reread that post about exercise and go back to watching what Ieat. I’ve been trying to cut back my beef consumption to once or twice a week. But cheeseburgers are still tasty, so we’ll see how that goes.

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Hoping That Doing It Myself Isn’t DIM

Posted April 3, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I’ve already remarked that I have not had as much time or energy for writing as I would like. In part this is because my teaching assignment changed considerably this year. After teaching 9th graders world history for my first five years as a high school teacher, I have been teaching 12th graders civics and economics, including one section of AP US Government. I also introduced a new elective class in American Studies that I originally hoped to combine recent American history with a study of current American culture but has wound up leaning a lot more toward the former.

In some ways, this has been a very enjoyable challenge. It is absolutely the case that what I am teaching now lines up much more with my prior academic training and outside readings and interest. Teaching 12th graders, many of whom have questions about college and beyond, is an exciting opportunity. (I also like teaching 9th graders who are just getting introduced to high school; it’s interesting to see the start and the conclusion of many students’ high school journey.)

It has also been a great deal of work. I haven’t been satisfied that the textbooks we have on hand are a good fit for our students’ needs or timely enough to be relevant to today’s challenges. So I have spent a lot of time gathering and editing articles from the web or writing my own. I think this has been a worthwhile investment of my time. The danger is that I have replaced a hardcover collection of material my students find impenetrable and irrelevant with a daily anthology of readings with similar issues, but I trust my knowledge of our students enough that I believe I am a doing a better job for them than a textbook writer aiming for a more generic high school audience. If I teach the same classes to my students next year, I hope I will be able to refine and improve the materials over the summer and have more time and energy to focus on helping the students use the material as a springboard to their own inquiry.

To put these materials together I use a laptop that my school provides for me. It’s several years old at this point and it’s starting to show the strain of trying to keep up with the times. Loading web pages and editing Word documents takes a lot longer than it does on my desktop PC. I mutter in frustration at this sometimes, but I have to think about how lucky I am. Were I teaching back in the days when I was in high school, I would not have nearly as many resources open to me from almost any location with only a few minutes’ wait.

Doesn’t stop me from staring with envy at the new laptops when I walk into an Apple Store, but it does help give some perspective.

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Not Always a Good Fit

Posted April 2, 2015 By Dave Thomer

I didn’t exercise today.

I had a bunch of excuses. I was tired. My stomach was bothering me. I had errands to run. I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way in the living room.

But they’re only excuses. I could have made it happen, if it had been a higher priority for me.

But it wasn’t. Even though I know it is important. Even though I know that putting physical exercise at the bottom of my priority list day after day has short term and long term consequences that I would prefer to avoid.

Is it rational? Almost certainly not.

Am I hamstrung by a lack of resources? Nope. I have plenty of information, people have shared strategies and techniques with me, and I have even been able to obtain some equipment to help me. My wife and daughter are both more committed to exercising than I have been lately, so I can’t even say I don’t have any role models or examples.

If I’m not as healthy as I could be, if I don’t have the success I want to have in the long run, I can’t put the responsibility on anyone else; I just chose to spend my time doing other things.

I think about this sometimes when I think about the times I struggle to help some of my students actively participate in their education. It gives me some empathy to think that some of them feel about academic work the way I feel about physical exercise. It lets me forgive myself a little bit for not inspiring a hundred high school seniors to become policy wonks.

But it also inspires me to keep trying to find ways to support them, to find the questions that they do have about the world and help them develop the skills to find answers. And it reminds me that sometimes what we need to do has to trump what we want to do.

So tomorrow I will head to the gym, and then I will crack the books. And maybe I’ll take another step closer to being the person I want to be.

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Never the Same Dave Twice

Posted April 1, 2015 By Dave Thomer

It’s been almost nine years since I finished my dissertation; a little more than six since I finished getting my teaching certification. I spent most of my 20s as a grad student and yet that part of my life is rapidly moving into my proverbial rear-view mirror. I talk about it with my students sometimes, often in the context of encouraging them to avoid student debt. But that life, with its intense focus on academic reading and writing, feel disconnected with who I am now.

I started thinking about this when I thought about how long it’s been since I wrote on this blog. I started it as a website in 2000, and it was meant to be a forum to talk about all the things I cared about at the time. Now I think about those sections and wonder if they still apply to my life in 2015. Am I still a philosopher if I haven’t read a journal article or written a philosophical essay in years? My reading and thinking about Dewey still influences the way I try to teach. Is that being a philosopher, or an educator, or both? I’m not sure.

I don’t know how much I can call myself a comics fan these days; I have a small pile of trade paperbacks to read, but since I stopped buying monthly comics and both major superhero companies did assorted revamps to their lines and continuity, I can’t say I’m heavily invested in the medium. I know a couple of creators whose work I like have independent projects, but even there I don’t race to the store (or to an e-commerce site) to grab copies. I still follow some of the news, go to a convention once in a while, and wear plenty of superhero shirts. Am I still a fan? I don’t know.

And then I come to the big question: Am I still a writer? I write material for my classes. I write short anecdotes to share with my friends and family on Facebook, and one-liners to share with folks on Twitter. But essays? Interviews? Deeper exploration of a topic? Putting one sentence in front of another until you have a paragraph, and then doing it again and again until you have a completed piece? I feel so rusty there, and so often I feel too tired to do the work of organizing my thoughts. There are things I want to write, and plenty of things I want to have written. But am I a writer?

I’m not sure. I think it’s time to find out.

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Ferguson Shows That History Class Needs to Question

Posted August 14, 2014 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday I read two articles covering complaints about the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. The National Association of Scholars and the Republican National Committee both attacked the revisions for promoting a negative vision of United States history, such as an emphasis on the racial hierarchy established in colonial times.

Last night and well into this morning, I was constantly refreshing Twitter to see what was happening in Ferguson, MO. If you’re not up to speed on the events, there’s a very good primer on Vox. Since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, residents have been gathering to protest, and the Ferguson and St. Louis County police have been very aggressive in their tactics – using tear gas, arresting reporters, and bringing out a lot of guns and armor.

There are a lot of lessons we need to learn from what’s going on in Ferguson, but one of them is that although we should not do so exclusively, we need to emphasize the negative aspects of America’s history, because they are influencing our present and so many people in positions of power do not see this. I have read the AP framework, and it does not ignore the idea that America’s leaders helped create a government that helped move justice and a government of rights forward. But neither does it ignore that they built that nation on territory occupied by other people, or that there has been an ongoing struggle to extend that nation’s protections and privileges to all its people. We need both sides of the story, and we need to understand that for all the positive legacy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the negative legacy of slavery, racism, inequality, and exclusion also lives on today. Injustice compounds and festers, even after its most obvious signs have been swept away. It creates situations where many people feel ostracized and under threat from the very society that they live in. Then others, who are more comfortable with the status quo, are unable to see where that pain comes from because they believed the problems were all (or mostly) solved in the past and so everyone should just be able to carry on now without having to respond to what went on before.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on the case for reparations earlier this year tried to bring that point home, and a lot of people tried to push it away. Ongoing discussions across social media and activist networks about privilege demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. Statistics about the unequal treatment that our criminal justice system gives to Caucasians and minorities pile up until we are numb. And then we see the powder keg explode in a town like Ferguson, where a mostly-white police force is alienated from the largely-black community that it is supposed to serve.

I’ve made no secret of my fondness for John Dewey, and one of his ideas that sticks with me is that education is the process through which society decides what part of itself to pass on to the next generation. Implicit in that is the idea that there are some parts that we do not want to pass on, that the generation to come will build a better society than the one we have today. That means we need to be able to challenge our students’ assumptions and preconceived notions, while we help them develop the skills to critically examine the messages that society sends.

For students who come from a position of privilege (as a lot of AP students are), that is tricky. We will often be challenging things they have learned from their families and their communities. Students may feel like we are trying to make them feel guilty, or accusing them of being biased or cruel themselves because of the biased and cruel actions of others. The idea of a social responsibility may seem at odds with the ethic of individual responsibility that we often want them to assume. This kind of teaching requires us to be challenging and supportive simultaneously, which means we need to create a good rapport and safe environment with our students, and help them establish it with each other.

Students from disempowered groups may not need a history class to help them understand inequality in America, but they need support too. If the classroom can be a supportive and pluralistic environment, then that helps create a model that the students can work to recreate in society. The history of injustice must be married with the stories of resistance to that injustice, and the story of imperfect progress should be brought forward to the present day so that students have a reason to believe not only that present injustice is unacceptable but that something can be done about it. And then we need to help empower students to demand that change. Many of our students are already learning how to harness social media to empower citizens, but that needs to expand to understanding our electoral system, identifying who has political influence, seeing how they use it, and so on.

Together, these students can become the citizenry that demands accountability from their elected officials, that exercises power with empathy and wisdom, and that brings more justice to an ever more perfect union. And as they do, I hope that they will teach us how to do so as well.

(This post was revised several hours after initial posting to add some links and clarifying details.)

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Philadelphia’s public schools are in limbo once again, facing a major budget shortfall with no clear path to sufficient funding. A municipal cigarette tax that would have helped alleviate, although not eliminate, the problem is on hold because the state House, Senate, and governor can not agree on a number of budget particulars. So School Reform Commission Bill Green, District Superintendent William Hite, and Mayor Michael Nutter have been threatening not to open schools in September unless sufficient funding is in place. I think that it’s a good idea to threaten a dramatic gesture, but I don’t think the district’s leaders have chosen the right one. They shouldn’t be threatening to keep schools closed in September. They should be promising to open them.

Right now the best case scenario for September is that the district opens schools at a funding and staffing level similar to last year. This “Doomsday” level of funding resulted in many students attending schools without counselors or full-time school nurses, without necessary supplies, and without many extracurricular activities. Private fundraising helped alleviate some of these problems at some schools, but there is no guarantee that schools will be able to stretch their dollars even to match what they did last year. That’s not an acceptable best case by any stretch of the imagination. The district leadership needs to change the game and change the conversation to make it clear that this is unacceptable.

They took a step in doing so in May, when the School Reform Commission first refused to pass a budget with even more drastic cuts and then finally passed one that assumed that the government would find the funding for at least a Doomsday level. I have seen a number of education advocates suggest that the district go further and pass a budget that assumes an adequate level of funding and open the schools in September based on that budget. Obviously, if the city and state do not provide additional money, the funds would run out before June. If that happens, that is when Hite and the SRC should close the schools.

I have a number of reasons for thinking this is a good plan, but I’ll try to boil them down to three main ideas.

1. It’s election season. There’s an election in November, and right now the odds look pretty good that Pennsylvanians will elect a new governor who has already said that he wants an education funding formula and an increase in the share of education paid for by the state, rather than districts. If there has to be a moment of no return, I’d like to at least have the chance of a sympathetic governor in Harrisburg. Perhapseven more importantly, Philadelphia and other urban districts need support from legislators in suburban and rural Pennsylvania. That is often a challenge, because those areas tend to elect legislators who are less sympathetic to Philadelphia. But if we can highlight the importance of full, fair funding as a regional issue between now and November, it is possible that we might be able to build some coalitions with our suburban neighbors and improve our chances of passing something good.

2. Shared sacrifice. Right now there’s a lot of us-against-them in the funding debate. The governor and SRC have asked for a lot of union concessions, and are threatening layoffs. Staff members criticize district administrators over their salaries and the money spent on consulting and testing, among other expenses. Parents and communities feel that their neighborhood schools are being targeted. If all schools are fully funded and staffed, and we all know that we’re all going to shut down together if there is no solution to the funding problem, than we can all work together to ensure that we achieve an enduring solution.

3. Better results. Let’s be clear: without a lot more money, this is not going to be a great year for Philadelphia students. The “open fully staffed until the money runs out” plan has a best case scenario in which we start the year on solid ground and then get funding midway through to finish that way. The “Doomsday funding for a full year” plan has a best case scenario where lots of kids don’t have the counselors, nurses, activities, and support that they need while school staffs drive themselves crazy playing a combination of triage, whack-a-mole, and marathon running. But if no more money comes in, either way, we’re looking at a worst-case scenario where it may be impossible to get a full year in. If we wind up in that scenario, I would much rather the district put its best foot forward for five to eight months. Let’s focus on quality time, not the quantity of time.

So that’s my pitch. September should be the start of the showdown over funding, not the climax.

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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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