Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

School Week Round-Up: Week One

We made it through our first week of school! Five whole days, even. Yeowch Francis pants! (That’s a bowdlerized cuss I actually said this week when I hit my arm against a heavy cart handle. It was in my classroom, but it was five p.m. and there was nary a soul within earshot.)

I thought I might do a little round-up of my week. I might try to make a habit of it, so I can go back and re-read later on and maybe get some bigger picture ideas of where my strengths and weaknesses are.

Lessons: Most of the lessons in the computer lab this week was setup and troubleshooting. Basically, I made sure students knew how to log in to their accounts, and when they couldn’t, I troubleshooted. Sometimes it was due to user error (darn the 1’s that look like l’s and the o’s that look like 0’s). Sometimes it was just their machine being uncooperative. Other times, I needed to actually fix something in the system.

Getting the students to log in meant guiding them towards their school email and, if we had time, getting them onto Google Classroom. I did have a simple assignment waiting in Google Classroom if they got in, but for a lot of us, that’s just where we’ll have to pick up next week.

SupportA big part of my job is supporting other teachers using technology in their classrooms. Much of it this week was dealing with updates in software; missing pieces of hardware; remembering the little things we had forgotten, like adjusting displays and finding printers on the network; and so on.

Our second grade teachers also started using the online product that we use as a growth measure to begin preassessing students. It was a rocky start — our Chromebooks didn’t work exactly like we had remembered, and we had plenty of issues with individual accounts to contend with. The first day of this, my head was spinning, but by day two I had it back on straight. We figured out how to work with the quirks and we finished out the week much better than we had started in this regard. Next week will be better with the first and third graders, because the second graders’ experiences showed us what we need to anticipate.

Things I Did Well: I think I am doing a good job of improving on the resources I made last year. I’ve updated some spreadsheets to improve the login cards from last year. I’m excited about a new piece I’ve incorporated that I’m sure I’ll write about once I start using it.

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MVP of the Week: My laminator! Our school laminator is great for big things like posters, but for little things that little hands will hold all year long, my thermal laminator is the way to go.

Things I Will Do Better: Time management is always something I could stand to improve, both in my professional and personal life. Not only did I allow discussions in lessons to go on a little too long, I found myself staying late in the building most nights this week, doing things that most of my colleagues probably would have done last week before school actually started. I’m paying for procrastination now by playing constant catch-up.

Cold Prickly of the Week: I overheard an adult say the hot lunch being served in the cafeteria looked “gross.” I didn’t enjoy hearing this. Firstly, I didn’t agree that the lunch looked gross. Secondly, I know how hard our cafeteria staff work to make and distribute nutritional lunches that are as appealing as possible. Students also have much more choice in their lunches at our cafeteria than I had seen in previous schools where I worked or where I went. Students must take a certain amount of fruit and vegetable servings, and they must take an entrée, and they must take a milk. And while there is only one choice of entrée each day, there are three choices of milk, at least two choices of vegetable, and two choices of fruit. And that’s just usually. Three out of five days this week, there were three or four choices of fruit and veg. Also, a student has to take at least two servings of fruit and vegetable — but can take up to four if they like. So if a child isn’t excited about the entree, they can take more fruit and vegetables. And if green beans don’t tempt you, there’s tossed salad or broccoli you can get instead.

So, I asked if I could start getting the same lunch as the students. It turns out I can, for the low price of three dollars per meal. It’s actually a really attractive option to me — packing a lunch is something I struggle to do consistently anyway, so it’s nice to just not have that concern. It’s probably healthier than eating fast food, more pocketbook-friendly than ordering delivery, and more appetizing than frozen meals each day. Also, I’ve been trying to walk to school as much as I can instead of driving, so it’s convenient to have one fewer thing to physically carry.

Warm Fuzzy of the Week: So, I started having the same hot lunch as the kids.  The portions are filling. I have eaten most of the things I have taken. The first day I had eyes bigger than my stomach and took the maximum helpings. But, I had neither time to finish eating them all, nor room in my belly. Luckily, the food is packaged in a way that means it could be taken back if it wasn’t open. Extras from one day are often put out the next day if they are stored properly and still good, which is one reason there are additional options. (This goes for entrées as well.) I sat with students, too, and it was really great to talk to them outside of instructional settings. It’s something I hope to continue doing at least a few times a week throughout the school year.

Unsurprisingly, my roundup for the first week revolved largely around food. But, I promise you, this week was nourishing in a lot of other ways. I feel great about how excited other teachers are about integrating technology and using the SAMR model. I think my principal did a great job setting the tone and improving school culture. (And I had that opinion before she brought donuts in on Friday!)

Happy first week to everyone else who had their first week of school, and good luck to everyone whose first week is still in the future!

Wine and Wine Not: Teachers and the Halo Effect

11970894281309688612johnny_automatic_wine_and_goblets.svg.hiAt our staff meeting before our students return, our principal set us to a task of discussing ways in which we would challenge ourselves and change our behaviors to better reflect our shared belief that every student can learn. It was just a short part of a bigger meeting, and like many chats between colleagues who know and like each other, someone opened with a joke.

“I promise to be there with a glass of wine when you need one!” she said.

“And remember that, regardless of whether the glass is half full or half empty, there’s still wine in it!” someone added.

Another person remarked that someone needs to teach her how to properly enjoy wine.

“The key is actually not to worry too much about it,” I said. “Even the professionals get thrown by labels. I mean, a cheap wine from Wal-Mart won a major award this past year, so the pressure’s way off plebes like us.”

In a wine competition, judges do a “blind” tasting, meaning that they have no idea what specific wine they are tasting. They may know details like the vintage or the varietal of wine but not much else. It seems that this is necessary to really assess the wine, as experts have been tricked into believing wrong things about wine — basic things such as the colorIn a 2001 experiment, a scientist invited fifty-seven wine experts to sample glasses of wine, half of which appeared to be red wine, the other half white. In fact, every glass was the same white wine, but some had been tinted with food coloring to look red. For the most part, it seemed as though no one could detect the truth. On top of that, the experts were allowed to see labels — which were intentionally misleading and inaccurate. Glasses served out of a fancy-labelled bottle were praised, while glasses served out of the table wine bottle were denigrated. Again, this was the same wine, and the only difference was the packaging. But their expectations of the wine turned out to have more weight in their judgment than what was actually served up in the glass.

And what’s the teacher’s take-away? One of the first grade teachers told me weeks ago, “I heard from the kindergarten teacher that one of my students was ‘bad,’ but I didn’t want to know which one, because I don’t want to assume they’re going to be ‘bad’ for me this year.” Just like the wine experts, we’d like to think we’re capable of objectively judging the specific qualities of someone or something. But, we tend to assess the individual attributes of others based on their appearances, and our expectations of them. This first grade teaching colleague of mine doesn’t want to hear which kid is “bad” because she doesn’t want to allow herself to subconsciously expect him to be bad, especially not when he’s going to a new school with a new teacher and has a clean slate ahead of him.

We teachers are especially prone to the halo effect, which is when our overall impression of somebody influences all your thoughts and feelings about that person’s character. Author David McRaney discusses a study done on teachers in his book You Are Now Less Dumb. Teachers all watched the same video of a fourth grade student performing activities. The teachers did not know it, but the child on the video was specifically chosen because he was absolutely average, with test scores well within normal ranges for his age. The teachers were divided into four groups. The first group was told they would be evaluating emotionally disturbed children. The second was told they would be evaluating learning disabled children. The third group was told they would be evaluating mentally retarded children. The fourth group served as a control group, and they were told nothing specific about the children they would evaluate beforehand. (This experiment was conducted in 1976, so the language they used at the time may not reflect the language we would choose today.)

The control group, who had no expectations in particular of the child, accurately judged him to be typical. But the other groups who attached a label to him before seeing him judged him much more harshly. They saw a child struggling with challenges that did not actually exist. All groups saw the same video of the same child doing the same things. But those who thought he was emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded did not revise their assessment when he behaved normally. Rather, they found evidence in his behavior to support their expectations, not subvert them. “The halo effect can easily set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which attitude changes behavior, which then loops back around over and over for the persons both giving and receiving a label,” writes McRaney.

Our first day of school is next week. I prepare in so many ways — decorating my classroom, picking my outfit, packing my lunch. But I also try to adopt the attitude of my colleague. I shall try not to judge each student as a whole based on their appearance or reputation alone. My students shouldn’t be burdened with my first impression of them for the rest of the school year.

Teachers, Challenge Your Misconceptions in 2016

That’s my younger brother there, bound for an Ivy League university this fall. He’s a smart guy, but even smart people fall into the trap of believing something that’s not quite true because someone with authority told you.

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I don’t blame my father. I think the whole “sky blue because it reflects the ocean” is a pretty common scientific misconception. And when kids “learn” things at a very young age, they may spend years taking them for granted without even examining their ideas closely until they face a direct challenge. This is well-documented in science, but I remember having some false beliefs about Catholic teaching that I got from my mother giving me short, simple answers — and me filling in the blanks for myself. Kids might do this on their own, too, by observing simple cause and effect in everyday life. A child might notice that water freezes when cold and becomes hard ice, whereas cheese melts and becomes gooey when exposed to heat. This child might become very confused when gooey cookie batter becomes hard, blackened discs when left in a hot oven for too long. Maybe the right idea enters their head, but sometimes they come up with their own private explanation that’s actually far off the mark.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve become more familiar with as an adult. I’ve said things to students that seemed, to me, like passing remarks — but a student took them to be carved in stone. I try to be careful and admit when I don’t know something, maybe even model how to find it out. But I also try to guide students through evaluating sources such as those on the Internet, since I don’t want them to accept everything they hear and read unquestioningly for the rest of their lives.

So, I forgive children this mindset. And I forgive the adults who tell them things. Kids in certain stages of development have to have very concrete ideas that we can hopefully move towards more abstract ones. But this happens at different speeds for different children. Some kids can wrap their minds around theoretical ideas with relative ease; others, like my brother, graduate high school without fully understanding how sunlight gets scattered by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s also not entirely children who fall into this trap, either. Adults might have misconceptions about any number of things, and if you don’t pause to examine them, you might never recognize that they’re misconceptions at all. And this is not something that has to do with intelligence. Sherlock Holmes famously had no idea how the solar system worked, which most sixth graders could probably reasonably explain. Smart people fall into wrong ideas all the time. The fact that we can filter the sources that reach us through online news and social media doesn’t help this; humans tend to choose to listen to things we already agree with. We have to continuously question the authorities we trust and examine our beliefs.

I personally strive to confront my ideas when I encounter information that provokes deeper thought, and sometimes I have to seek out a larger variety of perspectives in order to do so. I hope that doing so makes me a better model for my students, and helps me better understand them as they struggle to reconcile difficult concepts.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

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Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?