Persecution? Maybe not so much.

(This post might offend some people. That is not my intent.)

Maybe I’m bringing this on myself.

 

I read a lot of reporting on the Religious Right and the conservative side of American politics in general, so my view on this issue may be skewed. But there is, it seems. a perception among conservative Christians that they are facing religious persecution here in the United States.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. Persecution.

 

In the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

 

Let’s look at that claim, shall we?

 

Websters defines “persecution” as: a program or campaign to exterminate, drive away, or subjugate a people because of their religion, race, or beliefs. We can reasonably infer from this definition that real persecution is an active opposition to the actions and beliefs of a particular group of people based upon their beliefs, and that it is led by either the government or a large majority of citizens of a country against a despised minority.

 

So, can American Christians claim persecution? Let’s ask a few clarifying questions:

  • When you attend worship services, are you surveilled by government agents?
  • On your way to or from worship services, are you harassed by government officials such as police or military officers?
  • Are you asked about your religious practices during interviews for employment or while requesting government services?
  • Have you experienced threats of violence against you or your family as a result of your religious beliefs?
  • Can you document real financial losses as a result of your religious beliefs?
  • Have leaders of your religious organizations been arrested, imprisoned, or tortured (in this country) solely on the basis of their religious affiliation?
  • When you gather with other members of your religious group, are you afraid that you will be raided by government officials, imprisoned, or face violence to which government will turn a blind eye?
  • Have you been disenfranchised as a result of your religious affiliation?
  • Are you being denied basic civil rights as a result of your religious affiliation?
  • Have you been denied permission to start a religious worship program in your community because your religion is prohibited?
  • Has your ability to practice your religion in private ever been denied by a government official?
  • Is there an official, or even a de facto,  prohibition against practicing your religion?

 

The answer to all of these questions, for American Christians at least, is “No.”

You are not being persecuted. At all. You are, in fact, the majority of Americans. It’s pretty hard, really, to persecute a majority of the population.

 

Dear friends, you have never been prohibited from practicing your faith. While there ARE people who may disagree with you on tenets of your religion, and who may exercise their rights to express that disagreement and attempt to sway others to their side, that does NOT equate to persecution or limitation of your religious freedom.

 

Government requirements for public companies to abide by non-discrimination laws do NOT limit your religious freedom- if you hang out a shingle to do business with the public, you’re obligated to do business with ALL of the public, NO MATTER WHAT THEY, OR YOU, BELIEVE. Making a cake for a gay couple for their wedding does not mean you support their marriage; it means YOU ARE A BAKER OF WEDDING CAKES, and nothing more.

 

You can still go to church on Sunday without fear of being harassed by police or mobs of rowdy thugs on the way in or out. You can freely wear religious symbols and expect admission to restaurants, theaters, and retail establishments. You can gather with others who share your faith openly without fear of reprisal or violence. You are not being persecuted; you are getting pushback, and while it might be uncomfortable, IT DOES NOT COUNT AS PERSECUTION.

 

Pundits will say there’s a “war on Christianity.” They’re wrong. What you are feeling is not the pain of persecution, it’s the sting of rejection. Society is changing, and your worldview is moving from the majority to the minority. What you’re seeing is not persecution: it’s change. I understand that you don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean that you’re being persecuted or discriminated against. You can push back against the change, accept the change, or pretend it’s something other than change, but only 2 of those 3 options will get you anywhere. (And here’s a hint: Option 3 isn’t one of the 2 that will get you anywhere!)

Drifting

I’ve talked about my job status in this space before; I went from a job I really liked but had to leave because it was eliminated by budget cuts to one I really, really didn’t like. I left that one without first securing something else (lesson learned there!), spent a year out of work, and have landed in another position which is fine, but…
I guess it’s not just the unhappiness with my professional status that’s got me in a funk, though. It’s the constant rejection from places I apply for other jobs (I’ve got enough “Thanks, but no thanks!” letters from prospective employers to paper the walls of my living room), the jealousy I feel towards friends who are landing cool new jobs themselves (I don’t begrudge any of them those jobs, just wish I was getting one, too), and the blows my self-confidence takes every time I’m passed over for someone else.

But one of the worst feelings that’s come from this situation is one of professional… drifting, for lack of a better word. I’m not anchored, professionally-speaking. I’m out of the loop, on the outside looking in at progress and developments in the field to which I’ve devoted 15 years of my adult life. I have reduced opportunity- and inclination- to join in professional conversations on Twitter, and feel like I have little to offer to them, anyway. I’m still reading tweets, articles, and blogs, but find it hard to make a connection to what I’m doing day-to-day.

An example: recently, many of the people I follow on Twitter applied to the Google Teacher Academy in Mountain View, CA. This is a really cool professional development opportunity, and Mountain View is the closest GTA in the last couple years. It would have been great to apply myself, but I didn’t feel like I could. My current job doesn’t give me much opportunity to showcase Google tools, apart from using Forms to collect information and Calendar to schedule appointments. I don’t teach kids or present to adults often. So, no GTA for JIM.

I enjoy presenting at education conferences, and have done sessions on technology and administrative topics, but I don’t even feel like I have much to offer in that capacity lately, since so much of a presenter’s authority comes from their practice in the field. How can I teach teachers how to use technology in their classrooms to enhance their students’ access to Common Core State Standards, for example, when I have no classroom, no students I’m teaching, and have yet to interact with the CCSS in any meaningful way?

Adrift. Anchorless.

Now, all is not darkness, gloom, and self-pity in my life, though, and I am very mindful of the positives that have accompanied the negatives during this time. Spending 2 years and change not working and then working from home has given me the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with my sons, taking them to and from school, Scouts, and their other activities. I’ve been able to take the worries about how they’re going to get from place to place off my wife’s shoulders, allowing her to focus on moving her school forward. We’ve saved a lot of money on child care (especially helpful with my much-reduced salary). I’ve gained first-hand experience working in a virtual school program and the charter school system. And our clothes are always freshly laundered! And, while I never thought I was all that prideful, I’ve clearly been learning humility.

I try very hard to maintain a positive outlook, and keep my professional funk from impacting my relationships with my wife, our kids, and my family and friends, and I believe I’ve been pretty successful with that. I realize, though, that without some active funk-breaking on my part, I’ll continue to drift professionally and keeping balance in my life will become more difficult.
I’ve been giving it some thought, lately, with input from my lovely and patient wife, and think it’s going to require a multi-pronged approach:

  1. Exercise- I have the time, so there’s no excuse. And it’s been demonstrated that there’s a positive relationship between physical activity and mood.
  2. Education- I need to make a concerted effort to learn something. Maybe take a class, maybe pursue another credential. But something more than just reading articles; there has to be a purpose to it. Maybe I’ll research a book.
  3. Persist- Sitting around feeling sorry for myself isn’t going to steer this ship (to continue the metaphor). Just because the last 150 attempts failed, doesn’t mean then next one will, too.
  4. Communicate- I have to continue to talk about these things with my family and friends (and blog readers!) which has never been easy for me. But keeping frustrations inside is toxic.


I don’t expect that this will be an easy or quick process, but what choice do I have?

Short Story

This is a version of a story I wrote when I was in high school, almost 30 years ago. Yes, it’s dark. My sister, after she read it many years ago, asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about.

But please don’t try to read any psychological significance into this; it’s just a story. Like Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

“Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

It was the kind of question he’d heard a thousand times before. Meaningless small talk. Social interaction, nothing more. The asker of the question didn’t really care if he thought it was a beautiful day or not; he was simply being social, interacting with another human being in a manner typical to the species.

It was also the kind of question that drove him to distraction. Meaningless. Social. Without any purpose other than to connect one individual to another. The thing was, he didn’t want to be connected to any others. To be social. When he was honest with himself, he acknowledged that he didn’t even really understand what “beauty” meant.

He wasn’t full of hatred, or anger, or disdain for his fellow human beings. Truth was, he had no emotional experience whatsoever. “Numb” was a fairly accurate description of how he “felt.” He couldn’t remember being “happy,” even on Christmas or his birthday or the day he lost his virginity. He couldn’t remember being “sad” on the day his dog died, or when his parents divorced, or when the earthquake had demolished half the city he lived in, killing 2500 people.

He had no recollection of feelings of “pride” when he’d graduated from the university with top honors in science. He had no feelings of “love” for the woman he’d married and produced a child with, although he was always mindful to maintain the appearance of devotion and dedication to both his spouse and his offspring.

The reality of his existence was that he’d never, truly, really, felt ANYTHING at all.

He’d experienced physical discomfort, true, when it was cold. He’d known pain when his brother had hit him because he’d broken his favorite toy as a child. And he had known hunger, and thirst, and fatigue, and heat, and pain. But those were all physical reactions to environmental or biological stimuli, not something “felt” internally. They weren’t emotional responses.

For 35 years, he had existed, and felt absolutely nothing. He had no connection, whatsoever, to the living creatures around him. He didn’t hate them, he didn’t love them. He didn’t even view them as obstacles to his own goals nor pawns to be used; he had no feelings, at all, about them. Or anything else.

He simply existed.

He realized that he was different from others. He recognized the fact that other people loved, and hated, and feared, and grieved, and rejoiced, and worried, and exhaulted,  but he had never felt any of those emotions. He didn’t feel better than those who’s lives were filled with emotion, nor did he feel worse. Superiority and inferiority weren’t  something he recognized outside of quantifiable, measurable parameters. There was only difference.

“Yes, it’s a very nice day,” he responded.

Once he’d met the social expectations for small talk, he’d returned to his lab. His work was the only thing that held anything resembling meaning for him. It was his purpose, if indeed he recognized that there was any purpose to his existence. Because, while he felt no emotions- no love, or hate, or envy, or greed, or pride, or friendship, or ambition, or shame- he did experience one thing; curiosity. He wanted to know.

—–

Realizing that he needed to rest and to eat in order to continue his work, he paused. He prepared a simple meal of animal protein, grain carbohydrates, and vegetables, and consumed it. He required no seasonings or condiments, because he took no pleasure from his meal; it would have been as satisfactory to him if he’d eaten the contents of his sandwich as a blended mush. The food was fuel, no more.

A typical person, happening upon him in his lab, might have asked questions.

“What is the purpose of your work?” they might have inquired.

“What are you trying to do?”

“Why?”

Had any of these hypothetical individuals actually encountered him during his work, he would have answered, “Because I want to see what will happen.”

He had no goal or purpose beyond satisfying his curiosity. Like an impulsive child wondering, “What will happen if I push this button?” he had no reason for his actions.

Neither did he have concern for their consequences.
——

From an early age, he’d realized that there were certain expectations of members of his society. When someone asked, “How are you?” the correct response was, “Fine, thanks! How are you?” or some variation. When someone said, “I love you,” he was to say, “I love you, too.” If someone said, “Oh, that’s so sad,” he was to reply, “Yes, it’s very sad.” Actually feeling emotions behind the responses, however, seemed optional. If the correct words were spoken, it really didn’t matter what, if anything, he felt about the situation. His external response was, obviously, much more important than his internal response to any situation

—-

The premise of his work was simple, really; he wondered if it was possible to cause the atmosphere of a planet to spontaneously dissipate, and what would happen to the inhabitants of said planet if the atmosphere did, in fact, spontaneously dissipate. It did not occur to him that the consequences of such atmospheric dissipation would likely be horrific for those on the planet in question, as he was quite incapable of recognizing any such horror. If the entire population of the planet died, he reasoned, that was simply the result of the event. He reduced it to an equation in his mind:

If Event A occurs, Result B occurs.
A=B

Mathematically, it would seem reasonable to most people. That is, until they realized that A equalled the destruction of the human race.

But he wasn’t most people.
____

It seemed a very simple proposition to him; find a way to rid the planet of it’s atmosphere. Since the atmosphere was composed of chemicals (hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen primarily), if he could introduce something that would either cause those elements to dissipate or to react and form some other element, he’d be able to rid the planet of its atmosphere.

He’d studied Chemistry, and understood what happened when chemicals reacted. He also understood that there were some elements that resisted reactions, but, with the correct catalyst, could be “encouraged” to respond to stimulus. And, through his research, he’d discovered the catalyst he’d been looking for. The one that would make the planet’s atmosphere consume itself.

For a moment, only a moment, he felt the glimmer of something.

Deep inside.

Something he’d not experienced before.

A feeling that caused him to look upon his achievement with approval.

With… pride.
____

The explorers entered orbit around the planet. It was, to say the least, an anomaly.

The landing party approached the planet cautiously. While it had no atmosphere, sensors showed that there were cities, towns, buildings, technology. It appeared to be a modern, developed society, ready for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Except fot the fact…

…there was no life on the planet.

The explorers wandered among the silent, airless cities of the planet. Everywhere they found the bodies of the inhabitants of this planet, frozen in the moment of their deaths. The frozen airlessness of space had preserved them for eternity; millions of people, faces locked in expressions of fear, of desperation, and of hopelessness. Millions of faces, with similar expressions of horror.

Except for one.

In a science lab.

His expression, cemented for all eternity.

One of joy.

DigiWriMo

So, apparently, there’s this challenge going around in the Intertubez about writing 50,000 digital words durning the month of November. Now, far be it from me to pass up a challenge, especially one where I get to spout off about pretty much anything I want to talk about for 30 days! I mean, I’ve got a lot to say, about a wide variety of topics. I am, in point of fact, a veritable cornucopia of verbiage regarding topics of varying significance to a broad cross-section of the English-speaking world.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. 

Like many who have taken to the “blogosphere” before (and after) me, I am one voice among thousands. It’s true that on (rare) occasion I have drawn the attention of others, but for the most part, I speak for- and to- myself. I write- on the occasions I actually sit down and do so- for myself. I’m not looking for accolades, praise, or financial compensation (although, I would be willing to entertain offers, should you be interested). No, I write here because it’s what I need to do, when I need to do it. 

There doesn’t tend to be any particular schedule as to when I “get the blogging bug,” really. I think about things, and sometimes get to the point where I want to write them down. I don’t even always get to the point where I’m looking to publish any of my “thinkings.” Sometimes, they’re just for me.

But, we shall see. Maybe I’m able to write 50K digital words during the month of November. Maybe I’ll be able to grow a Movember ‘stache as well (it’s more likely I’ll write 50,000 words than grow facial hair, truth be told). 

The question is, though, “About what shall i write?”

I’ve spent the last several years floating about what’s called the “edublogosphere,” or that rarified environment online where educators can blog to their little hearts’ content about issues of importance to them. I’ve produced pieces on a variety of education-related topics, from the trials and tribulations of the school administrator to a plea for “education reformers” to stop and take a look at what they’re actually doing. I’ve written about a number of topics, but haven’t spent much time writing about the topic I should really know best: myself.

Yes, I’ve allowed my personal feelings to influence my writing. I’ve gone into depth about certain feelings regarding religion, and shared my employment “issues,” 
But, through it all, my blogs have been a place where I’ve been free to share this sort of thing, and, having done so, feel OK about where I am, who I am, and what I’m doing. 

This is a very powerful thing.

I’m hoping that I’ll make the 50K word challenge this month; while I’m not the most elegant nor prolific writer, I think I’ll be able to produce SOMETHING that will engage the literati of the blogosphere for a little while, at least.

ISTE, Here I (Sort of) Come!

ImageTomorrow I’m heading down to San Diego for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2012 conference.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate; tomorrow I AM heading down to San Diego, and the ISTE conference is, in fact the reason I’m going. I’m not, however, going to be attending the conference. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to enter the San Diego Convention Center, where the conference is being held, because I haven’t registered for the conference. 

There are a couple of reasons why I’m not registered- mainly because, while my school is willing to share the cost of registration, the expense of hotel and meals for 3 or 4 days is more than my budget can handle at the moment. (Not to mention the wear and tear on my body from late nights “networking” over adult beverages with other attendees!) 

But, realistically, it’s not the sessions that are the main draw for me when it comes to any education conference. Yes, I attend sessions and learn a lot, though I find that there aren’t that many sessions that really call out to me. Often I’ll attend a session based on who the presenter is more than what the topic is, and it’s this that is really at the root of my trip tomorrow.

For the last 4 years or so, I’ve been connecting with other educators on Twitter, and have had the opportunity to meet many of them in person at conferences as Tweet-Ups. Many I would now consider to be friends; we’ve made connections beyond trading comments about the current state of eduction and educational technology in 140 characters or less. While I can’t justify the expense of attending the conference, neither can I justify passing up the opportunity to connect face-to-face with my colleagues from around the country.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to shake hands and break bread with some folks I haven’t met in person yet, as well as reconnect with those I’ve met many times, and maybe even make some new friends. These informal conversations will be filled with learning, will range across a variety of topics, and will embody the “social” aspect of social media. While my time “at” ISTE will be short, I’m looking forward to it.

What’s in a name (redux)

I originally posted this 2 years ago- I think it still applies, maybe even more with the current divisiveness in American civic discourse and the “war on Christmas” perceived by some on the right.

In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it ‘Christmas’ and went to church; the Jews called it ‘Hanukkah’ and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah!’ or (to the atheists) ‘Look out for the wall!’ — Dave Barry

(Thanks to @Mamacita for the quote!)

Does it really matter what we call it when people just aren’t as quick to be an A-hole to other people?

People like to argue. I know, it surprises you.
They’ll argue about whether it’s cold when it’s 60 degrees out (at least here in California, they will). They’ll argue about politics. They’ll argue about which is the better pet, a dog or a cat. They’ll argue about which football team deserves to, but won’t make, the playoffs. They’ll argue about just about anything.

Like whether we should say “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!”

Both sides have a point: Saying “Merry Christmas” presupposes a belief in Christianity, which, in our pluaralistic, multicultural, melting-pot-type society is not a given. Saying “Happy Holidays!” discounts the influence the Judeo-Christian tradition has had on the culture of the United States and secularizes what many see as a religious holiday. Saying “Back at ‘cha!” just doesn’t seem to acknowledge the significance of the season itself.

So, why are we so focused on this?

The one thing I think many of us can agree on is that, at this time of year in particular, people try to set aside their A-hole-istic tendencies and be nicer to one another. Well, maybe not so much in the parking lot of the mall or at the counter of the Honeybaked Hams store, but, by and large, we do try to be less of an A-hole to other people during the late-November-mid-December season.

And, can any of us say this is a bad thing, no matter our motivation? Does it really matter if I, in the course of being less of an A-hole to you, say, “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” Do you, on the receiving end of my less-A-hole-like attitude, really care what words come out of my mouth as I hold a door open for you while you carry $1500 worth of junk to your car? I think not.

What you really care about is the fact that I didn’t just let the door close in your face because I was already through it. What you really care about is the fact that I waved you into the parking space we were both trying to get, even though I was there first. What you really care about is the fact that I didn’t shove ahead of you in line at the JC Penny’s while you were holding your fussy 2-year-old and trying to buy gifts for your friends and family.

The words don’t show holiday spirit. The actions do.

So go ahead and say, “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” or “Feliz Navidad!” or “Joyous Kwaanza!” or “Happy Chanukah!” or “Peaceful Winter Solstice!” or “Enjoy your days off!” Whatever you want to call it is fine with me.

Just be less of an A-hole for a few weeks, and I’m happy.

And now for something completely different!

This is a HUGE departure from my usual posts, but something that’s been running around in my head for a while now. I’m posting mainly because this is my blog and that’s why I have it: to take things from my head and put them out in the world. I welcome your comments.

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6 (NIV)

This statement is, as I understand it, essentially the foundation of the Christian faith: There is but one way to reach heaven and that is through Jesus, the Son of God. Living in the US, this is a message I’ve been hearing for my entire life, although growing up in a non-religious family, it’s not one that I heard with much reinforcement at home. Now, as I attend a church regularly with my wife (who recently came to faith), it’s one I hear even more.

Thing is, I don’t believe it.

Please allow me to explain:

Like I mentioned above, I had no particular religious upbringing. My family is nominally Catholic, and I received First Communion in the Church when I was about 7. That was basically the end of my religious education and participation until adulthood. I still identified as Catholic, but out of convenience rather than conviction.

I saw people with great religious beliefs around me, but never shared them. On one hand I admired those of great faith: they seemed, often, to be at peace and to be getting a great deal of comfort from their beliefs. On the other hand, I also so those who were clearly using their self-applied label of Christian for personal gain and seemed to be doing little more than paying lip service to the tenets of Christianity while acting self-righteously and superior to others. It was the latter who most colored my perceptions of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and who reaffirmed my conviction that I was better off living my life as best I could, having a personal relationship with God that did not include Jesus as a separate individual, and adopting a “live and let live” attitude towards the faiths, or absence thereof, of others.

I never really gave all that much thought towards what I believed. I accepted the possibility of a God, or Gods, but rejected the idea that He or She or They took much of an active interest in the lives of those here on Earth. Religion, I came to believe, was at worst a tool used by one group of people to control another, to enrich themselves, or to excuse their avarice, land-grabbing, murder, discrimination, and conquest, and at best a way for people to find peace in their lives by assigning responsibility for their condition, good or bad, to an all-powerful being or beings.

As I’ve learned about other faith traditions, one thing has struck me: adherents of all of them believe that theirs is the “right” way. Many believe that God has spoken directly to them or to the founders of their faith, and that their beliefs, traditions, and practices will gain them entry into the better part of the afterlife.

So, who’s right? It seems reasonable to assume that there is one, true faith, and that adherents of those others are in the wrong and doomed to eternal suffering or, depending on your belief system, separation from God/Gods/Creating Spirit or continued reincarnation into the mortal cycle of life, death, joy, and pain.

But, here’s my question: God, assuming one believes in him, is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. How, then, can we presume to limit Him to one path?
A look around you will remind you that God loves diversity. Look at the variety of life He created; animals, birds, insects, and people. Rain, sunshine, deserts, mountains, oceans, storm and calm. People point to John 14:6 and say, “But, God says right here that THIS is the only way! We’re not the ones limiting Him to one path; He chose the path, and it is through Christ.”
Yes, that’s what it says. But think for a moment: Assuming that God wants mankind to live by a certain code and, as a reward for that wants to allow them to continue for eternity alongside Him, and assuming that He wants as many as possible, from around the world He created, to come to Him, doesn’t it stand to reason that He has many different paths, paths that will be attractive to us, in all of our diversity?

I’ve always wondered, when I hear people say things like, “Christ is the only way!” what happened to those who lived before Christ, or those who lived and died long before Christians moved outside of the Middle East and Europe to spread the word of God. Were they damned to Hell simply because they were born at the wrong time? The answer I’ve often heard is this:

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13 (NIV)

Those who seek Him will find Him. Doesn’t that, right there, allow for other paths to “salvation?”
I find it hard to believe that a God who loves us, who wants us to be good to one another, to act out of love towards one another, would punish us for being good differently.

Look to the example of the Dalai Lama. By all accounts, this is a person who exemplifys “Good,” with a capital “G.” Yet, by Christian standards, he worships false gods and is doomed to burn in Hell. How can a just, loving God do that?

I attend a Christian church with my wife. I even volunteer with the church as a camera operator every 3 weeks, we contribute a portion of our income to the church every month, and we sponsor a child in Kenya through a ministry partner of the church. There are many, many good people there, and I feel that the church has a positive impact on our community; our family has participated in two community service days sponsored by the church, cleaning up local schools. The senior pastor is, as far as I can determine, sincere in his faith and lives by it, unlike some notable examples of ministers who have abused the trust of their congregations and the power of their positions. He’s an engaging speaker, and for the most part I enjoy listening to his messages; there’s a lot of good there for everyone, I think, regardless of religious conviction.

But I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian, a “follower of Jesus.” I typically pass when the Communion cup and bread come around, I don’t sing during worship or participate actively in prayer. I don’t hear God speaking to me while I’m there, telling me to accept the sacrifice of Jesus on my behalf. I don’t feel God pushing me towards baptism. There’s no voice in my head or in my heart telling me that this is the one, true path that I must follow.

Some will say, “Read the Bible, and you’ll see what God wants for us!” I have a problem, I will admit, accepting as authority for any belief system the central document of that system: “I-believe-the-Bible-is-the-word-of-God-because-the-Bible-says-it-is-the-word-of-God” (I acknowledge this is a gross over-simplification) isn’t exactly a convincing argument. And, honestly, the idea that God allowing Jesus to be crucified was a sacrifice on His part rings hollow to me (God is omnipotent, omniscient. Jesus is son of God, and is himself God. God knows that Jesus will be crucified, but afterward will live again and eventually come to heaven and rejoin God, or come back to join Himself. If you knew you could give something up and get it back, would you really consider that a sacrifice?)

This church is not my home, although it is the home of many. This church is not my “forever family,” though many have found a “forever family” here.

And I believe that’s OK.

I believe that there are many paths to God, and that what is important is for us to live as good as we can, to serve our families, our communities, our world, with what talents and resources we have. It’s important that we act out of love for one another, and care for those who need us. The ideals of service and sacrifice are not exclusive to any one faith, but are a common thread through all of human society; how can one religion possibly claim exclusive right to them?

I admit, this is a superficial examination of faith in general and Christianity in particular, and despite what it may seem I am open-minded. I admire those people who hold to their beliefs, who exemplify the best that a religious tradition teaches. Sometimes I envy them the peace they have, the certainty that things will work out. But I’m honest enough with myself to recognize that I don’t possess that faith, and that to participate in worship actively, of any faith tradition, would be hypocritical and meaningless; if it’s not in my heart, it shouldn’t be on my lips.

An Open Letter to Education Reformers

Dear “Education Reformers”:

You know what? I’m convinced. I’ve decided to believe you when you say that you want what’s best for kids, and that you are concerned about the future of the children of this country as well as the future economic prosperity of the country itself. I, and every other educator and parent I’ve ever met, share your concern and your desire to improve education in this country. It is, after all, important.

But let’s talk about the methods you’ve chosen to achieve this goal, shall we?

Do you have children yourself, Mr/s. Ed reformer? Have you ever tried to convince one of your children to do something they didn’t want to do? And, in this attempt, did you threaten your child with consequences if they didn’t do what you wanted them to do? How did that work out for you?

“Eat your peas, or no dessert!”
“Clean your room, or you’re grounded!”
“Mow the lawn, or you can’t use the car this weekend!”
“Stop crying before I give you something to cry about!”

Odds are, you got the behavior you wanted, be it eating peas or a mown lawn. But did your threat of punishment make your child enjoy eating their peas? Was the lawn mowed better than it ever had been before? What was the quality of the work the child produced? Was it the last time you ever had to threaten punishment to get the same behavior? Did the quality of the mowing, or the enthusiasm of eating peas maintain the same high level? Or did you get a half-hearted, bare-minimum attempt to fulfill the request you’d made, along with a bitter, surly child who said they hated you? Or was it that you simply wanted compliance, not a real change in behavior, not real quality work?

Have you ever tried to get an adult to do something for you? A co-worker, subordinate, spouse, or stranger? What approaches have worked best for you? Threatening discipline or termination, divorce, or physical violence? Or appealing to their sense of professionalism, responsibility, or community? Asking them to change, or telling them to change? Have you seen significant drops in crime that you can attribute to the threat of severe consequences alone, or do such drops come with an accompanying increase in police presence and community improvement initiatives?

I think you’ll agree: you can’t threaten or punish people into doing what you want them to do; at least, not if you want them to continue doing it after you let up on the punishment. You get them to do what you want when you work with them, treat them with the respect they are due, and value their contributions.

So, being the smart, dedicated people you are, I ask you: why do you think taking away teachers’ unions, due process rights, salaries, and professional standing will make them teach better?

“Care more about students, or we’ll cut your salaries!”
“Teach better, or we’ll cancel the collective bargaining agreement!”
“Work harder, and longer, for less money, or we’ll replace you with long-term subs who work cheaper!”

Look, we get it; the economy is bad, and everyone has had to tighten their belts (well, at least everyone who isn’t a CEO, but we’ll ignore that point for now.) Teachers and other school employees around the country have done exactly that, accepting pay freezes and cuts, furlough days, and abbreviated school years along with reductions in support staff, cuts in classroom supplies, fewer visits from the custodian, and larger class sizes, all accompanied by the ever-present threat of the RIF notice, and have accepted them largely without complaint and while minimizing the impact on kids in their classrooms. And in exchange for these sacrifices, we’ve been told that we’re overpaid, lazy, and concerned more about our big, fat pensions than we are our students’ achievement. We’re told we can’t be trusted to do our jobs without frequent visits from “experts” who have never actually worked with kids to make sure we’re doing it right. We’re told that years of experience and advanced degrees are meaningless in comparison to the “enthusiasm” of a Teach For America teacher with 5 weeks training and an Ivy League college loan debt they’re hoping to have forgiven after 2 years. We’re told that insisting on the right to bargain collectively for salary, benefits, and working conditions makes us “defenders of the status quo” who don’t care about kids.

So, we comply, but our heart isn’t in it. We’ll administer the standardized tests that don’t really tell us what you say they do, and in the process we’ll kill our kids’ natural curiosity and joy of learning, because “you measure what your treasure,” and if it’s not on the test, we don’t care. We’ll read scripted lessons to our classes of 35+ kids, and refuse to answer questions that aren’t in the teachers’ guide because we can’t be trusted to do so. We’ll skip art, music, and PE because they aren’t tested. And we’ll burn out and leave the profession in droves, because that’s what you want, and you’ll find (probably too late) that our kids are worse off than they were before.

Well, here’s another option: include us in the process. Let’s work together to make schools better for kids. For kids, not for CEOs, not for politicians, but for kids. We want to do what’s best for kids; not what’s cheapest, or most popular amongst the Tea Party set, but what is best for kids. Treat us with respect, and we will be willing to listen. We want to make our profession better, just as you claim; work with us to make it so. Please.

Sincerely,

Jim

Grammar. It matters.

I read an article today about a chief of police who is resigning his position. Not that earth-shattering a revelation, really, but the letter with which he announced his retirement was quite, um, direct, calling the city council “incompetent,” among other things.

I’ll allow you to read the letter yourself; my point here is not about the content of the letter, but rather how well it was (or, more accurately, wasn’t) written. I don’t pretend to know much about the situation the chief is describing; I live in the same county but not the same city, and I don’t keep up on events there so much. I’m not here commenting on how accurately the chief portrays the political and financial climate in his city, nor on how accurately he describes the qualifications of the city councilpersons. None of that has anything to do with my point.

And that point, finally, is this: When you write for public consumption, whether it’s a press release, a letter to the parents of students in your class, or a VERY public letter of resignation, you should have someone proofread your work BEFORE it’s published.

As I read this letter, I was impressed by the authenticity of the chief’s feelings, and by his candor as he shared them with his audience. However, the awkward sentence structure, the apostrophe in the word “fly’s,” and other stylistic and mechanical errors took away from the impact of the letter. Instead of the “righteously-outraged-public-servant” vibe he was probably going for, I got a “OK-what-exactly-was-he-trying-to-say-and-why-didn’t-he-correct-this-before-he-sent-it” feeling.

The lesson? HOW you say what you’re saying matters just as much as WHAT you’re saying, and sloppy mechanics make you look dumb. Maybe that doesn’t matter much in the comments section of the newspaper, but it ought to matter in the writing of professionals- in any profession.

PS: I realize that a post of this sort invites you to be critical of my own grammar and usage. Please, if I have made errors point them out. While I believe grammar is important, I’m no perfect grammarian myself. If I have erred, mea culpa. I hope only that my errors serve to help you, gentle reader, to improve you own writing.

It’s Called “Grey,” People!

We are a nation, maybe even a world, of “either-or:”
Coke or Pepsi?
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Import or Domestic?
Yankees or Red Sox?
PC or Mac?
Winner or Loser?
Friend or Foe?
Us or Them?
Liberal or Conservative?Support the Troops or Hate America?
Labor or Management?
Reformer or Defender of the Status Quo?
Charter Schools or Traditional Public Schools?
Standardized TestinOverload or No Accountability?
Black or White?
With Me or Against Me?

My Way, or the Highway!

This polarization has become so pervasive in our society that we don’t even debate issues anymore: we just stand up and shout our side’s talking points, as if they automatically counter the other side’s, and refuse to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there’s a middle ground. One need only read the comments section of an article on a news site or watch one of the Sunday morning talking head programs to see this in effect. Why is this?

My theory is that people are either too lazy to perform the critical thinking necessary to synthesize their point of view with an opposing one, or that we have become so territorial and competitive that the recognition of validity of an opposing viewpoint is seen as weakness.

But the reality is that many of these are false dichotomies: it is possible for unionized schools, with tenured teachers, to be fantastic schools; Charters offer programs and choices for parents and students that traditional public schools don’t, but aren’t automatically better than traditional public schools; It’s possible to offer both a rigorous STEM curriculum and physical education, art, and music.

Until the folks on both sides of these issues are willing to stop shouting and start listening, though, no lasting change is going to happen. While one side may have temporary control, as soon as the winds shift and the other side gains the advantage, everything will be undone, whether or not it was working, because it will be the promise of undoing that will sweep the other side into power.

I don’t mean that people should abandon their principles or that we shouldn’t believe passionately in anyt

hing, nor do I mean to imply that there is never a time when compromise is wrong. There are times when one side of an issue/conflict is clearly without merit; why anyone would be a Yankees fan is completely beyond my understanding, for example. But the world around us is not like the world Jonas inhabits in The Giver but instead is a world filled with a rich diversity, and clinging blindly to our own point of view is to ignore that richness.
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