Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Tree Hugger Primer for Conservatives: It's More than Just the Newts

I’m a liberal; but as Sarah Palin might put it: I “pal around” with conservatives. This past weekend Rudy, my conservative friend, and I headed for the bar. Talk eventually turned from Bengals’ chances to ever win a playoff game to Rudy’s favorite trifecta of topics. Guns, girls and the “hoax” of climate change.

After downing a seventh beer, Rudy pointed out that last winter in Cincinnati was one of the coldest ever.

“That’s true,” I began….

“People who believe weather is changing don’t have a clue,” he added, kind of slurring his words into his (now) eighth Budweiser. “Bunch of tree huggers. Don’t care about nothin’ but a bunch of newts.”

“I don’t know,” I tried again. “Scientists say that 2013, globally, may have been the seventh hottest year….”

“I nearly froze my tits off on my birthday,” Rudy interrupted. His birthday is January 30. And if there was snow on the ground on his birthday, that clinched the deal. Global warming ouldn’t possibly be real.

I like Rudy, but never make much headway talking to him. He believes President Obama is lurking in the bushes, waiting to grab his guns. I once pointed out that 21,000,000 pistols, rifles and shotguns were sold in the United States in 2013.

Rudy still thinks Obama plans to grab them.

Evnetually, I helped Rudy stagger home and wished him good night. But I couldn’t get our conversation out of my mind. I think “tree huggers” care about more than just the newts. You know, people, too, like Rudy—and Rudy’s children—and Rudy’s grandchildren. I tossed and turned and finally decided I had to try.

Yosemite National Park: It's more than just the newts.

Voltaire once said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” Let’s begin with that.

According to Merriam-Webster “tree hugger” was first used as a pejorative in 1965. The definition: “Someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats.”

So: the first question to resolve is obvious. Are we foolish if we worry about the future of the earth’s environment? Here’s a little evidence.

Tree Hugger Primer for Conservatives

1871-1873: Americans get a 19th Century wakeup call. Hunters wipe out 9,000,000 bison in just three years. By 1884 only 300 remain.

March 1, 1872: Congress creates Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Park Improvement Company soon has a monopoly on concessions and accomodations in the park. Company president “Uncle” Rufus Hatch explains how it’s done. He brags that he can buy a U. S. senator’s vote for $5,000. The Northern Pacific Railroad is already working on a plan to run a rail line smack through the middle of the park.

(The U. S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled that corporations are people, with food cravings and prostate problems.)

Yellowstone N. P. Wouldn't a railroad line look nice?

In 1890, John Muir convinces the U. S. government to create Yosemite National Park. Theodore Roosevelt visits in 1903. Teddy comes away infected with what Glenn Beck scornfully calls “progressive ideas.” Such as: We ought to protect the beauties of this country for generations yet to come.

John D. Rockefeller reads about President Roosevelt’s visit. “WTF, screw future generations. #Robber Barons,” he tweets.

1914: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, dies. Once there were five billion of these birds. Conservatives insist that there’s nothing to worry about. Why? We still have plenty of crows!

1930s: Dust Bowl proves that protecting the environment might not be a bad idea. Large chunks of Texas, Oklahoma and assorted western states blow away.

1940s/50s: Glory days for U. S. chemical industry. New pesticides, like DDT, wipe out mosquitoes. New synthetics offer promise of a better life. Look, Ma! No-iron pants!

Silent Spring is published (1962). Maybe all the chemicals aren’t so great. Rachel Carson warns that spraying DDT to kill insects also decimates bird populations. Pesticides threaten the bald eagle with extinction.

A spokesperson for the chemical companies claims that DDT won’t hurt anyone, not even if you mix it in grape jelly and spread it on your toast.

Vietnam War (1964-1973): American military dumps Agent Orange all over Southeast Asia. The plan: make it hard for enemy troops to hide. The powerful defoliant works just great! It kills the leaves. It kills the trees. Also fish.

Wildlife, too.

(Thousands of U. S. servicemen exposed; they later develop a cornucopia of biological and neurological disorders.)

1968: Polychlorinated biphenyls are in the news. PCB’s (normally used in coolants) get mixed in Japanese cooking oil by mistake. Symptoms of what becomes known as the “Yusho disease” develop. These include skin eruptions, oily eye discharge and numb extremities. Three hundred people die.

1969: The massively-polluted Cuyahoga River catches fire. Conservative radio talk show hosts blame Barack Obama, then eight.

April 22, 1970: First Earth Day. Good day for newts! Environmental Protection Agency created in December.

1971: Oregon requires a deposit on all bottles and cans. Conservatives claim this will mean an end to beer drinking as we know it.

1972: EPA reports that PCBs are found in every major U. S. river system.

1973: Endangered Species Act enacted. Conservatives claim all tree huggers care about are spotted owls.

1974: Scientists issue first warning about thinning ozone layer. CFC’s (chlorine-fluorine-carbon molecules) are used in hairspray, deodorants and air conditioning. The breakdown of the ozone allows rising levels of UV rays to reach the planet’s surface. National Geographic notes that increased UV rays “can cause skin cancer and cataracts in humans.” Other signs of trouble include “reproductive problems in fish, crabs, [and] frogs.”

Acid rain becomes a concern (1970s). New England sugar maples die. Conservatives posit the idea that trees commit suicide. Lakes in the Adirondacks turn into what one scientist calls “a witches’ brew of low pH waters.” The fish die. Various fish-eating bird species are pushed to the brink of extinction. National Geographic reports that fish in 100,000 Scandinavian lakes have been wiped out. Rush Limbaugh, then in the process of flunking out of college, tells classmates to quit crying and eat some fish sticks.

1976: Dioxin—now proven to be a dangerous carcinogen—is banned in the United States. 

Red Dye #2, commonly used in food coloring (including M & M’s) also found to be a carcinogen.

If you produce hazardous wastes you have to dispose of them. Many companies decide to bury them underground. If you can’t see toxic waste, it can’t hurt you, right? Unwitting home builders put up lovely homes, sometimes right on top of dumps. In 1977 chemicals begin seeping to the surface in Love Canal, New York. Levels of toxins prove so high the area has to be fenced off and the town condemned. Nine hundred families lose their homes. Residents, including small children, develop cancer.

1979: The nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island nearly melts down—which would have left a large part of Pennsylvania glowing in the dark.

August 24, 1979: Chem-Dyne plant in Hamilton, Ohio explodes. For years the company has operated a waste disposal facility at the site; but the business model is flawed. Disposing of dangerous chemicals is time-consuming. Also expensive. What to do? Hey, let’s dump barrels of wastes in the canal behind the plant. (The canal runs into the Great Miami River.) What kinds of materials? Taste-tempting pesticides. All kinds of industrial solvents. Some “waste oils, plastics, resins, PCBs, acids, caustics, metal and cyanide sludges and lab waste.” Good stuff! Five fish kills in the river and two fires on-site are signs of trouble.

Chem-Dyne goes out of business (1980). The facility becomes a Superfund cleanup site. How many of these sites are there today? Alabama has 14, Alaska 6. California has 93—none of which you’d want to live downwind from if you had a choice.

January 20, 1981: Ronald Reagan sworn in as president. James Watt, his new Secretary of the Interior, explains his vision for the future of all public lands: “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.” Watt also makes it clear he despises tree huggers. “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box,” he tells reporters, “perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

February 1983: Studies reveal that soil in Times Beach, Missouri is polluted beyond hope. The U. S. government buys the town. Cost: $33 million. A study by the Center for Disease Control is ordered. In nearby Imperial, Missouri, 112 of 130 residents show “abnormalities in blood, liver or kidney function.”

On March 16, 1983, the Cincinnati Enquirer notes that acting EPA chief, John Hernandez, has found some great new friends. Hernandez likes them so much he allows representatives of Dow Chemical to edit agency reports. One draft warns that Dow has been dumping dioxin into rivers and lakes. Someone suggests that the report should read: “Dow is the coolest corporation ever!” EPA officials and chemical company boys share a laugh. (Government regulations aren’t so bad if you circumvent them!)

1984: A Maine ban on roadside billboards goes into effect. The last of the signs come down in November.

December 3: Forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas (used in pesticides) leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India; 3,800 die.

April 26, 1986: The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melts down. Half a million people are exposed to extreme levels of radiation. A large part of the Ukraine becomes uninhabitable for…oh…the next ten thousand years.

1987: Americans producing 400,000 tons of garbage daily.

March 24, 1989: The oil tanker Exxon Valdez strikes a reef in Prince William Sound. Eleven million gallons of crude oil spill into pristine Alaskan waters. (Somewhere in Wasilla, Sarah Palin practices her famous war whoop, “Drill, baby, drill!”)

October 1989: Baltimore dispatches the “poo poo choo choo.” Carrying 5,000 tons of sewage sludge the train heads for South Carolina. Officials there refuse the malodorous gift. Mississippi also declines. The choo choo chugs back to Baltimore filled with noxious poo poo.

July 16, 1991: Cincinnati Health Department issues warning. Untreated sewage has contaminated the Ohio River. Human beings should avoid all “bodily contact” with the water.

1992: Los Angeles air rated “unhealthful” 124 days in one year. Meanwhile, the Atlantic cod fish stock collapses. Over-fishing is the cause.

Growing evidence indicates dioxin is a threat to bird, animal and human reproduction. A 1993 study reveals that birds in heavily contaminated Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts have reproductive tract abnormalities. These include ovarian cells in male terns. Conservatives express relief. At least the terns aren’t turning gay!

1997: Julia Hill builds a 6 x 8 foot platform in the branches of a giant redwood tree. She hopes to stop Pacific Lumber from cutting it down. Hill remains at her post, 180 feet above, for two years. Another tree hugger, David Chain, is killed in 1998 when workers cut down the tree he’s in by mistake.

Global warming: 1998 proves to be the hottest year ever recorded. The next nine in order: 2010, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2009, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2001.

Senator James Inhofe insists that God is “still up there.” So climate change can’t be happening.

Rush Limbaugh tells listeners to go to their freezers, look inside, and see if they have ice cubes. If they do global warming is a hoax.

In 2004 scientists report that elevated levels of toxins have been found in the fatty tissues of the Inuit people. Even humans in the Arctic aren’t safe from spread of harmful toxins.

March 2008: The Scientific America warns about effects of fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms. Nitrates in fertilizer seep into rivers and streams. Algae thrive on nitrates; so the algae really bloom. Oxygen in the water is depleted. Follow the flow to the Gulf of Mexico and what do you find? An area “the size of New Jersey” where no fish can survive.

CBS reports in March that birth control residue and traces of antibiotics and tranquilizers are turning up in drinking water. Forty-one million Americans may be affected. Ann Coulter finds this news oddly...relaxing.

Disappearing rainforest: Scientists warn that 700,000 square kilometers of the Amazon have been cleared since 1970. That’s an area the size of Texas. Native peoples in the Amazon Basin protest. Ranchers, who absolutely, positively need land for grazing, kind of solve the dispute by shooting them.

December 22, 2008: Roane County, Tennessee residents get an early Christmas present. A retaining wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant collapses. A huge pond of wet coal ash breaks free. More than five million cubic yards of sludge escape. Hundreds of acres of farmland and assorted farmers are buried in goo.

Representatives of the island nation of Tuvalu make headlines in 2009. They warn that within fifty years their island chain will be swallowed by rising seas. “Climate change is real to us. It’s happening now. It’s a threat to our existence.”

April 20, 2010: The Deep Water Horizon drilling rig blows up. Five million barrels of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Investigators find safety regulations have routinely been ignored. Employees of British Petroleum are charged with obstruction of justice. BP and other corporations are socked for $50 billion in fines/damages. On his show that evening Sean Hannity says he favors waterboarding tree huggers.

October 2010: Glaciers across the Andes are melting. By 2020 people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador will “lose a major source of fresh water.” Similar problems exist in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean basin.

(In Montana, scientists predict that Glacier National Park will see the disappearance of its last glacier by 2030.)

You can still hike to Grinnell Glacier in Montana; but you might haveto hurry.

March 10, 2011: U. S. Senator Rand Paul speaks up for the right of all Americans to sit on the toilet of their choice. During a Senate hearing he launches into a diatribe about regulation. Lord, that man hates regulation! He fumes that federal agencies are trying to force people to buy energy efficient light bulbs. And by the way, the low-flow toilets in his house don’t work! He’s mad as hell and not going to take it.

March 11: An earthquake and tsunami slam Fukushima, Japan. Fuel rods in three nuclear reactors begin to melt. Don’t worry, company executives tell everyone, we have this under control! They actually don’t. More than 80,000 people evacuate their homes. Three years later few have been able to return.

The grey wolf is removed from the Endangered Species List (2011). Conservatives love this news because they own so many guns. Hunting season is open! As for the list, they hate if from A to Z. “N’ is the worst! Damn newts!

March 2012: California Academy of Science reports that 70% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, depleted, or extinct as a resource. On Fox News, Megyn Kelly denies there’s trouble. Her pet goldfish are fine.

May 16: One of the great articles in tree hugging history is published. “What’s Inside Those Breasts?” The author is nursing a baby. She decides to send a milk sample to a lab. What exactly is inside those breasts? Traces of pesticides. Dioxin. Jet fuel residue. And flame retardant chemicals! 

Drink up kid.

August 26: NASA satellite images show the Arctic ice cap has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded.

Recognizing changes in the Arctic due to climate change, the Canadian government decides to invest in more patrol boats and outlines a comprehensive strategy to develop resources never accessible before.

October 28: The Wall Street Journal reports that heavy use has depleted the Ogallala Aquifer, “one of the world's largest such subterranean water sources.” The U. S. government warns that within two decades water supplies for irrigation in large parts of Kansas and Texas will be gone.

In December scientists report that male sperm counts are declining worldwide. The drop since 1989 is one-third. Scientists suspect toxins in the environment. Some conservatives wonder if the cause might be too-tight underwear.

July 2013: GOP Congresswoman Martha Blackburn rallies the nuts. On the House floor she rails against government regulation. Energy efficient appliances are apparently a threat! “First they came for our health care,” she howls. “Then they took away our light bulbs…now they are coming after our ceiling fans.” (Really, she said all that.)

Beemagedon: Scientists warn that the honeybee population is in collapse. According to experts the problem relates to “common agricultural chemicals.” Between 2007 and 2013 ten million beehives are wiped out. Tree huggers take a moment to point out that more than one hundred U. S. crops rely on honeybees for pollination.

2000-to-present: All kinds of products show up on U. S. shelves carrying “Made in China” labels. These include GE energy efficient light bulbs. (No joke.) Why? The Chinese don’t slap “unnecessary regulations” on business!

Of course, there are glitches if you do not bother to regulate. Like when thousands of dead pigs turn up in a river that supplies drinking water to Shanghai.

Um...and the fact that eight million acres of Chinese farmland are now too polluted with heavy metals and chemicals to be used to raise food crops.

Well...and the fact that even the Chinese government has to admit that 60% of its groundwater is now polluted.

Also when air quality in Beijing sets an all-time record for pollution. A reading of 100 means air is harmful for people with respiratory conditions. A reading of 400 means air is harmful for…well…everyone. 

Beijing air hits 755!

Scientists discover powerful winds are blowing air pollution from China across the Pacific. Where does it land? On the western United States! One pollutant, black carbon, does not wash out of the atmosphere. “Black carbon, the New York Times notes, “is linked to asthma, cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease.” 

One out of every seven kids in America now suffers from asthma.

Other glitches related to unregulated Chinese business practices: toxic lead paint on toys marketed in the U. S.

Not to mention: melamine in Chinese dog and cat food sold here which led to the death of thousands of American cats and dogs!

As 2013 draws to a close the Solar Energy Industries Association announces a banner year. For the first time the U. S. installs more solar panels than Germany. Cumulative solar electricity capacity in the U. S. is enough to supply 1.7 million homes. Fox News does a hundred stories about the failed solar company, Solyndra.

January 9, 2014: Chemical spill in the Elk River leaves 300,000 people in West Virginia without safe drinking water.

January 16: Fox News decides it’s time to divert loyal viewers from all the bad news. Forget that chemical spill. Look! Shiny objects! President Obama has declared war on coal!

February 2: Another huge spill, this one at a Duke Energy facility in North Carolina, leaves seventy miles of the Dan River coated in toxic coal ash sludge. (Tree huggers find this ironic, since the North Carolina legislature is dominated conservatives.)

March 21: Regulators in North Carolina suddenly realize that even conservatives don’t want coal sludge in their drinking water. Duke is busted for illegally pumping 61,000,000 gallons of contaminated water from another ash pit into the Cape Fear River.

June 2014: A new study finds a possible link between increased air pollution and  the rise in autism.

Today, September 16: The Australian government announces a plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The reef (almost as large as Japan), has lost half its coral in a quarter century. At least three-fourths of reefs worldwide are also at severe risk.

So: there you have it. I don’t know if writing this will help; and I could have included even more examples. But this is the type of evidence I’d like Rudy and my other conservative friends to at least consider.

We’re all riding along on the same blue planet. We are all in this predicament together.

It's not about the newts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hiking in Glacier National Park

Part of the trail to Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park.

When I was teaching American history, back in the day, I used to use a number of slides taken on vacation to illustrate important points. 

One slide that never failed:

Sequioa National Park in California.

I always put this slide up first for the day. Then I asked my students, “How many of you think that’s a big tree?” After all agreed it was I added, “That’s just a sequoia tree limb.” I explained that a ranger told my first wife and me that the limb was 150 feet long when it snapped and fell to the ground, shattering into several huge pieces.

This simple trick captured student attention and got us started on an excellent lesson about John Muir and early efforts to protect the environment.

I used a variety of slides over the years: scenes from Custer's Last Stand, pictures of terrible Indian reservation lands, buffalo in Yellowstone and many, many more. Pictures from Bodie, California, a ghost town high up in the Sierras, helped students do a writing assignment centered on the gold rush era.

Bodie once had a population of almost 10,000. By 1932, the town had been abandoned.

Often, I liked to tell my seventh and eighth graders that if they never listened to another word I said (not that what I said was ever boring, of course), they owed it to themselves to drive across the United States once in their lives, to see what a beautiful country we have. 

I remember when Laura Barlett stopped by to see me one day after school. She was probably twenty years old at the time; and I had already headed for home. So Laura left a note, saying with excitement that she had finally followed my advice and visited Yellowstone and other great parks out West.

When I read that note, I knew I had done my job as a teacher.

Suppose I was teaching today. Lets say: I was teaching health. 

I’d build a lesson plan around a trip I just took to Glacier National Park. I’d focus on the idea that all of us can get into better shape and focus on the benefits of walking more, or in this case hiking a little. Maybe I’d throw in a few pictures from my two bicycle rides across the United States. I believe, after all, that you can plant important seeds in the minds of the young. I’d like to plant seeds that might leads kids to develop an interest in getting into better shape and staying that way.

After all, I met a 78-year-old women on one of the harder trails in Glacier and she was still going strong.

Of course, that’s probably never going to be on any kind of standardized test. I’m retired now; but as a former teacher, that makes me sad.

No dedicated teacher I ever met wanted to be locked in to following a rigid, narrow curriculum. Dedicated teachers want to fire the young with a passion for learning—and an abiding interest in the world that surrounds them.

I’d tell my students today, “If you don’t listen to anything else I say this year, go hiking in Glacier National Park someday.”

If one young person eventually did, I’d have earned my pay for that day.

Buffalo road block in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Hiking the trail down from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park.
My wife is 62; and I'm even older than that!


My two youngest daughters at the top of Piegan Pass.

Mountain goat near the trail to Hidden Lake.

That line you see is Going to the Sun Highway, a spectacular engineering feat.

Grinnell Glacier: by 2030 all glaciers may be gone.
That tells us something about climate change.

Hidden Valley Lake.

The Highline Trail is supposed to be the most spectacular in Glacier.
I didn't have time to do this one myself.

Overlook above Grinnell Lake.

Looking down from Piegan Pass.

Moose dead ahead on the trail.

Also: bighorn ram on the trail.
If I was still teaching I'd show students this picture of Monticello.
Jefferson's home.
If you want students to know what the people on wagon trains faced
this picture works. Not far from South Pass in Wyoming.
I'd try to convince students they could do more, physically than they think.
I used to try to convince them they could do more mentally, too.
Tioga Pass in California.
Lake at the top of Tioga Pass.
Beartooth Highway near Cooke City, Montana.
Hiking the Highline Trail in the clouds.
You can always sit around; or you can go and hike.
Highline Trail: I'd try to teach students to step out of their comfort zone.
You know: challenge themselves.

The water in Avalanche Lake was probably only 40-45 degrees.
So I took a quick swim.
I used to try to convince students to go beyond the ordinary,
make something interesting of their lives.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is Getting Rid of Tenure the Answer? Or Should Teachers Stop Breathing?

I’m your typical retired teacher. I suppose I shouldn’t let all the attacks on public school teachers bother me.
But they do.

For that reason, I would like to pose a question that goes to the heart of school reform thinking. That is: Why do so many experts sound so stupid when they talk about fixing our schools?

This question bothers me like a stone in the shoe. I read the stories about what’s “wrong” with American education and end up scratching my head.

Maybe I’m dumb! That’s a powerful thread in attacks on public school teachers today. Supposedly, we’re just not smart enough. Finland! Finland is the model we must follow to fix our schools. In Finland only smart people teach! In fact, according to experts there’s nothing wrong with American education except all the bad teachers.

A typical editorial in the New York Times this week hammered away at that point. According to Mike Johnston, who “spent two years with Teach for America,” bad teachers with tenure are the great stumbling block in the path of every child’s academic success.

After spending two whole years (!!!!!) in a classroom, Johnston seems to believe he learned everything there is to know about teaching. Then he spent six years working as a principal in a Denver public school. And what do you know! 

His school had amazing standardized test results.

(We will not mention here the numerous cheating scandals involving other “amazing” standardized test results. We will also not mention that all the amazing test results linked to No Child Left Behind have now been tossed out the classroom window onto the schoolhouse lawn. Nope. We will keep our teacher sarcasm in check.)

Frank Bruni, who signed the editorial, noted that Johnston’s mother was a public school teacher. Johnston isn’t a teacher hater. (So Bruni says.) Still, Johnston “expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers.” That’s the first line that makes me choke on my morning toast.

You there! You! The physics teacher pointing out the solution to a complex problem on the white board. You! The one grading those eighth grade Language Arts essays! You! The one talking to the weeping third grader! YOU are not the best person for the job.

You are the PROBLEM. 

If we could get rid of you all the children would excel. We can’t get rid of you though. You have tenure. You dirty rat!

So what must be do? Johnston says we need to implement a tenure system that “means something,” a system based on test results. (Even bogus test results? Or test results that no longer matter because NCLB is dead?) We can’t continue the system we have now that rewards teachers “just because you’re breathing.” That’s the second line in the editorial that makes me choke on my toast.

If I read this right, asphyxiation is the cure for what ails U. S. education. We simply convince bad teachers to stop breathing.

Ironically, after trashing teachers in a general way, Bruni ends by exhorting readers to support good teachers everywhere. But this is one of many pieces of a similar sort that hint good teachers are few and far between. Hard to find. Kind of like Sasquatch. Or unicorns. “We need to pay good teachers much more,” Bruni adds. “We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the great from the bad.”

Now a Colorado lawmaker, Mr. Johnston has the last word: “Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he says lamely, having already said the reverse. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

That’s the line that finally makes me mumble a curse.

I loved teaching and had tenure most of my career. I knew what I did mattered. So I did the absolute best I could. But unlike the non-teaching experts—or the quick teaching quitters who go on to become “leaders” and politicians and critics—I learned that I wasn’t the solution. No teacher has ever been and no teacher ever will.

If every bad teacher in a classroom suddenly stopped breathing next Monday critical problems in all our schools would remain. (In Finland, to cite one example, 4% of children live in poverty. In the USA that figure is 23%.) Good teachers put dents in such problems. Good teachers do that every day. 

Nevertheless, our so-called leaders must face up to the truth. Teachers aren’t the solution and tenure isn’t the problem. H. L. Mencken put it plainly seventy-five years ago: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The experts keep offering up simple solutions to complex problems in education, simple solutions that prove disastrously wrong in the end. If we wish to improve outcomes in schools we have to rest reforms on a solid foundation of good sense. A society has a right to expect teachers to give their best. A society cannot, however, expect them to perform miracles with every child every day.

Teachers don’t need to be lectured, punished, or vilified by fools. They need aid in addressing terrible problems that seep into schools—problems rooted in neighborhoods and homes, problems not of their making, nor within their ordinary human capacities to resolve.


Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

See if you can figure out which of these problems would be eliminated (or even reduced) if teachers lost all tenure protection:

Approximately 300 American children are murdered annually by parents. Marchella Pierce (as just one example) was tied to a bed, beaten and starved to death by her mother. The four-year-old weighed 19 pounds when she died.

Each day an average of 4.5 U. S. children die as a direct result of neglect.

There are 3,000,000 cases of abuse and neglect reported annually in this country involving nearly six million children.

A "Lousy Parent" Hall of Fame would include but not be limited to:
  • the father who put his infant daughter in the freezer because she was crying 
  • a father who threatened his daughter (over her grades) with an AK-47 
  • a mother who gave her two-year-old marijuana to smoke as a joke
  • a mother who sold her two daughters to a pedophile for $30,000
  • another mother who sold her daughter in return for Beyonce tickets
  • a dad arrested after repeatedly throwing his 23-month-old daughter into the pool to teach her a lesson about safety

At least 1.6 million American kids run away from homes every year. Most are teens. Many are fleeing physical or sexual abuse. Over half of all children and teens living in shelters or on the streets say parents "asked them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn't care."

(We might be able to help them if we spent less on standardized testing and more to hire school psychologists and counselors.)


In 1950 only 6% of American children grew up in single-parent homes. Today the figure is 35%. For African American kids the figure is 67%; for Native Americans: 53%; for Hispanics and Latinos: 42%; for Non-Hispanic Whites: 25%; for Asian Americans: 17%. It won't surprise any teacher to know that graduation rates are inversely related to the figures above.

Children raised in single-parent homes are twice as likely to drop out of school.

Nearly three million children in this country live with neither parent.

High school graduation rates for Native Americans, to cite one of a thousand examples, fell to 51% in 2010. You could argue this has much to do with crushing poverty on reservations. (Or you could make some absurd case that bad teachers with tenure gravitate toward reservations.) On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota 61% of children live below the poverty line.

A study by Johns Hopkins reveals that 15% of students miss at least one school day in every ten. Forget ending tenure as a solution. Give teachers telepathic powers so they can reach students sick, and faking sick, at home.)


There are 2.7 million children in this country who have one (or both) parents behind bars.

In 2011 roughly 35% of all gang members in this country were 17 years of age or younger. An estimated 1.4 million individuals belonged to gangs in 2009. That means 490,000 gang members were still in schools or roaming the streets.

In 2007-2008, the U. S. Department of Education estimated that 145,100 U. S. teachers were attacked by students.

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre there have been 74 school shootings in this country, including twenty involving one fatality or more.

This would not include 22 students and staff injured in a stabbing attack at a Murrysville, Pennsylvania high school (April 2014).

Nor would it include Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old Massachusetts teacher, raped, stabbed and killed in a bathroom at her school after classes ended for the day. A 14-year-old student in her math class has been charged with the crimes.

According to FBI statistics there were 2,852 attacks in U. S. schools involving knives or other "cutting instruments" in one year (2004).

It might also be difficult for any teacher, with tenure or without, to reach a confused 11-year-old who brought knives, a loaded pistol and 400 rounds of ammunition to a Vancouver, Washington middle school intending to kill classmates. (This attack was thwarted before he could do any harm.)


In 2009 alone more than 13,500 infants were born suffering "from a type of drug withdrawal commonly seen in the babies of pregnant women who abuse narcotic pain medications." The rate of such births has tripled in a decade.

Deaths from opiod overdoses in the United States now number 16,000 per year. (One statistical oddity: doctors in Tennessee wrote opiod prescriptions at a rate 22 times higher than doctors in Minnesota.) Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control, explained recently: "Prescription drug overdose is epidemic in the United States. All too often, and in far too many communities, the treatment is becoming the problem.”

Meanwhile, 6.4 million American kids have been diagnosed with ADHD and treated with drugs like Ritalin. Frieden recently "likened the rising rates of stimulant prescriptions among children to the overuse of pain medications and antibiotics in adults." (Again, rates of diagnosis vary: 23% of children in Tennessee--only 10% in Colorado. Sorry, we're not really picking on Tennessee.) Even Dr. NeHallowell, who once called such drugs "as harmless as aspirin" and wrote a book about ADHD now calls this situation "dangerous" and admits, "I hate to think I have a hand in creating that problem."

Roughly 23.5 million Americans, many of them teens still in school, or parents of kids, are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

One in fifteen high school students (6.5%) admits smoking marijuana every day. No way of telling whether or not this helped when they took their standardized tests.


Finally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, for health and educational reasons, that children be limited to watching two hours of television per day. Many moms and dads aren't getting the message. The average American child watches 35 hours per week.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Best Seating Chart Ever

I adopted this arrangement after I read it helped with discipline.
I taught seventh and eighth grades.

Like any young teacher, I found keeping good order in a classroom to be one of my biggest challenges. I had been in the Marines, too.

And that kind of helped.

At the start of my third or fourth year in the classroom, I came across a story about a teacher who did away with typical rows. Instead, he arranged student desks in a horseshoe formation. There were two rows of chairs on each wing, teens facing inward and two rows at the base of the “shoe.” His position was at the open end near the blackboard (in those days). 

This allowed him to roam the center of the classroom at will.

This seating chart proved to be a huge improvement over old-fashioned rows. First, it was popular with students (nearly always a virtue, I think). It allowed them to see each other instead of the backs of their classmates’ heads. This fostered a more intimate atmosphere, especially during discussions.

Equally important, this setup allowed for greatly improved discipline from my end. Suppose, with old-fashioned rows, a child in the back was thinking about poking a neighbor. Or he was writing a note. Under the old arrangement you found yourself far away at the front of the room while the young man studied the distance.

To him it looked safe. He knew you wouldn’t see him poke the cute girl in the back. Or he knew by the time you came down the row he’d have his half-finished love note tucked safely away.

The horseshoe altered this calculation. If you roamed the center in random fashion, it was hard for anyone in the “back” to zone out. If you thought the young man in Seat A was doodling, you strolled in his direction, casually, since no rows impeded. And you stood next to his seat. You just happened to stop by—and asked the girl to his right to answer a question. The boy in Seat A is now alert. 

If a girl in Seat C was being a little disruptive you walked over and without a word gave her your “teacher look” or simply tapped her desk.

Seat B (or its twin on the other side of the room) was a good place to locate any particularly loquacious youth. You surrounded them with quiet or studious types in adjacent seats. It was also easy to stand by them during lectures and tamp down any disruptive impulse.

Proximity sufficed—and cutting down minor problems helped avoid festering sores that could lead to serious discipline problems in the end.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Index of all Posts

My Promise 

When I started blogging three years ago, I promised to speak up for good teachers. I also said I would never defend bad ones. I began by trying to debunk the myth that something was wrong with America’s teachers as a group.

See:  Numbers Don’t Lie: Our Teachers (And Doctors) Are Failing. (More recently, I addressed this topic again. PISA Wars.)

I also mocked the idea that U. S. teachers were stupid and terrible in: America’s Teachers! We’re Dumb! And We Suck!


When I retired in 2008 I felt lucky. I loved life in the classroom, loved working with teens, and taught for decades. Today, I’m worried about younger teachers. When I look at current education reforms it appears to me that so-called experts are pushing disastrous policies. That should not be a surprise. Most of these experts never taught.

See, for example:  Do Recent School Reforms Help or Hinder Real Learning.

Other teachers weigh in on the topic: Is the Teaching Profession at Risk?

Also: R.I.P. No Child Left Behind. Hard to believe that since this blockbuster law was implemented, SAT, ACT and PISA scores have all declined. Even NAEP scores are flat. (If you’re a real teacher you start to wonder: Do these experts have a clue?)

I would say no: Arne Duncan Discovers the Obvious.


I know good teaching is extremely hard. I know even the best teachers face victory and defeat in the classroom, oftentimes during the same day. I am currently working on a book titled Two Legs Suffice:  Lessons I Learned by Teaching.

The title relates, in part, to two bicycle trips I took across America, one at age 58, the second four years later.

If you’re interested in reading about my first ride across the United States go to viall4diabetes. My youngest daughter is a type one diabetic and I pedaled to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Students helped me raise more than $13,500. 

Double click on any pictures and they fill your screen.

My second ride—including my arrest as a bank robbery suspect—is documented at viallfordiabetes2011. Luckily, I was able to prove my innocence and pedaled 4,615 miles in 58 days, again raising money for JDRF.

Pedaling along the shore of Bear Lake in Utah, early morning.


Several of my most popular posts are listed in the sidebar at the right. More than 20,000 educators have now read the N.F.L Adopts Common Core Playbook.

My personal favorite is: How Many Reformers Does it Really Take to Fix a School? I believe every frontline teacher knows how many reformers we actually need—and how rarely those reformers actually step into a classroom to help.


Social studies teachers might be able to use:  Who Were Those People Who Died on 9/11?

I had excellent results using this reading with my seventh grade students (they then turned it into a skit that lasted an entire bell): Women of the American Revolution

Can You Answer Six Simple Questions about the Declaration of Independence?

Sixty Years Ago: Brown v. Board of Education.

Teaching about Slavery also explains a lesson plan idea I used successfully with my kids.

I found that putting up quotes all over the room also helped interest students: Wisdom on the Walls.

Drawing by Emily C., showing the TV-Indian stereotype.
Not like most Native-American cultures at all.


This category keeps growing as incidents of school violence pile up. Recently, I had to add a tribute to Colleen Ritzer: Find Something Good in Every Day, the Massachusetts high school teacher stabbed to death by one of her own students.

Another Teacher Killed in Danvers, Massachusetts highlights Ritzer’s tragic fate, as well as the death of Michael Landsberry, gunned down on a middle school playground. 

The shooting at Chardon High (February 2012) tells us much about the problems teachers and students face in the real world:  Shooting at Chardon High.

My most recent post on the topic expresses anger in regard to the failure of our so-called leaders. Their blindness is breath-taking: Does Arne Duncan Realize that Teachers and Students Are Dying?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre I shared a few thoughts on Arming Teachers:  A Stupid Idea. One of my students brought a gun to class in 1985, intending to shoot me and at least one classmate. So I have a particular interest in the topic.



In the summer of 2012 Johns Hopkins University released a study on student absenteeism: Stop Blaming Teachers and Start Blaming Pediatricians? Every teacher in the country could have predicted the results of this study.

Rock, Voucher, Scissors:  Saving Carl Won’t Be Easy:  A friend teaches in a poor district. What might she have done to save Carl if the young man lived with a mother whose mind was addled by drugs? Carl’s father was long gone from the picture.

See also: Home School for Homeless Kids. Which school reform (standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools) addresses the needs of these most needy children?


Consider the Ten Myths about U. S. Public Schools. These myths have shaped the thinking of the general public, which now believes our entire public school system is in crisis. One of the ten myths is that we who teach are morons.

How many times have we heard America’s schools are not preparing kids to succeed in a competitive global economy? That’s a second myth:  Are Poor Public Schools Killing the U. S. Economy?

Michelle Rhee, a leading education reformer, promised to use a broom and sweep out all the bad teachers in Washington, D. C. She failed to say what she would do about the students carrying knives. See: Michelle Rhee: Reformer with a Broom.

Thanks to Fox News a video of a student ranting against his teacher went viral (What One Student Rant by Jeff Bliss Doesn’t Tell Us). Based on ninety seconds of tape people weighed in on what they felt was wrong with all teachers.


In my class I had some success in reducing bullying. I share a few of my ideas in the post: Bullies in Middle School and Junior High


Can you get rich in education? You can if you start your own charter school and pay yourself $9.5 million for one year: You Can Become a Millionaire.

How are charter schools doing? Based on current evidence here in Ohio, they’re not doing that well. Ohio Charter Schools Suck: GOP Lawmakers Still Love Them.

We know what happens when business interests run for-profit colleges. Crooks abound! It’s hard to see how they’ll do better when it comes to for-profit charter schools: The Business Model in Education: Really! It’s Going to be Great!

Actually, we already know what happens when shysters run charter schools. As a bonus, you have a science curriculum that teaches kids the Loch Ness monster is a dinosaur. Link: Privatizing Public Schools and the Loch Ness Monster Bonus.

Also: Governor Kasich Puts the Bible (and Koran) Back in Ohio Schools.

How does a for-profit charter school make money and get rid of kids with serious discipline issues all in one simple move? Why not charge $140 for discipline packets when kids get in trouble, like Noble Schools in Chicago? See:School Crisis?” Maybe It’s an “Office Tower Crisis?”
     Big Money in College Sports Means Bad News for Student Athletes.
     Vouchers, Charter Schools and Terrible Parents.


What happens if I bring in fourteen combat veterans to speak to 700 students at my school? It’s not standardized education and the experiences these veterans share can’t be “measured” on any standardized test.

See also: Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish (Part Two).

We’ve farted around with standardized tests for two decades. So: Should I focus on Shay’s Rebellion, as the State of Ohio now insists, or will my students be more likely to hear about “The American Dream” in years to come? And, if you like standardized tests, what do you about Songhai trade? See: Where in the World is Ohio? The Curse of Standardized Tests.

What did it mean when the worst stutterer I ever had in class spoke in front of his peers for an entire period and won a standing ovation? This was the kind of learning experience that matters. Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere.

Also: Teachers: Are You Part of the Lunatic Fringe?
         Standardized Testing: So Far We Might as Well Dump the Money in the Ocean.
         Rock, Paper, Common Core Curriculum: What’s the Real Key?
         The Emperor of A, B, C and D.
                        An auxiliary post provides even more examples.

A Perfect Mesh of Common Core and New Technology offers a glimpse of a Brave New World in which education and testing are controlled by testing and software companies.

In my class students were required to read a number of books for outside reading as part of their grade. I wanted to engage as many kids in reading as possible; so I gave them hundreds of books to choose from. Is that standardized teaching? Comments by former students help provide an answer: Why Teaching Matters—Part Four (Books).

Also: Why Teaching Matters: Part Three.
         Why Teaching Matters: Part One.
         Why I Loved (Non-Standardized Teaching): Stephanie’s Astute Observation.
         Standardized Testing: Confessions of a Terrible Teacher.

George Stranahan (who taught for half-a-century) addresses a number of critical issues in his book, A Predicament of Innocents. He shares my disdain for standardized testing.


If you bring business efficiency to public schools you’ll be introducing business morality too. What happens if businesses run for-profit charter schools the way pharmaceutical companies market harmful drugs for children? Let Big Business save Our Schools and Our Children.

ExxonMobil Announces Commitment to Fixing U. S. Education touches on the same subject.

Also: Big Bucks in Tater Tots: When Public Schools Run with Business Efficiency.
         Donald Trump: Next U. S. Secretary of Education?
         If Only Goldman Sachs Ran the Public Schools!  
         Pigs in the River: How Rupert Murdoch Got His Foot in the Schoolhouse Door.
         Unionized Public Sector Workers and Free Market Enterprise.

         Related posts include: June 30, 2011November 4, 2011June 8, 2012.


In this satiric post we send education experts to the doctor to get advice from car mechanics and plumbers. I mean, it could work. An Education Expert Goes to the Doctor.

Making fun of education experts is too easy. Shakespeare explains what school reformers miss. Forsooth: Shakespeare Doth Explain School Reform.

Do bureaucrats in Washington, D. C. help or hinder real teachers and real students? See: Rick Perry Was…Um… Uh…Right: Get Rid of the U. S. Department of Education.
           Can Teachers Save Every Child: Even Dylan Klebold?

Aesop weighs in on the topic of big talking experts: Big Words from School Reformers, Small Deeds.



I thought the key to my success in the classroom and the key to students’ success was obvious: The Key to Better Education: It’s Not Just Teachers.


Critics forget that there are hundreds of thousands of good teachers at work every day in this country. I asked former students to talk about educators who made a difference: Why Teaching Matters: What’s the Square Root of Inspiration? They fill a series of posts with heartfelt comment.


If you’re a public school teacher and not yet familiar with this program you might want to pay attention. The Teach for America approach has its virtues but too many of the people who run it and support it are puffed up with arrogance. (Ergo or Lego: Why I Hate Teach for America.)

I have an even better idea. I say we let all the experts actually teach: Experts for America: Like Teach for America, Only Better!

We keep hearing that America needs smarter teachers.
The arrogance of Teach for America leaders is sometimes hard to take.


When do we give up on the idea that grading schools will solve our biggest problems? Try this: Grading Schools, Grading Society?


Is it a good public policy to tie teacher pay to test scores? We consider the speech therapist who reaches an autistic child and finally helps her communicate. (Say “Wabbit:” The Inherent Limits of Merit Pay and Standardized Testing.)

How do you “measure” what it means when a teacher convinces a seventh grader he has the talent to go to college some day? Joey provides an answer in a letter he writes to his old history teacher. (Making a Difference in Untestable Ways.)


We’re now spending billions of dollars annually on all kinds of school reforms. So far, SAT scores have decline every year since No Child Left Behind was enacted. Scores reached record lows in 2012: Education Experts Baffled: SAT Scores Decline Again!

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Performance have also flat-lined in recent years. Leading reformers are puzzled.


My conservative friends don’t like these posts. Far-Right Conservatives Invent New Language was “liked” more than 100,000 times when posted repeatedly on AddictingInfo

Conservatives forget there was a time when even inter-racial marriage was banned in America. Read: Who Knew? Rupert Murdoch is a Flaming Liberal.

A number of posts in August, September and October 2012 might also be of interest to those who like to argue liberal vs. conservatism, and everything on the fringes and in between.


Freedom of religion is fine. Using tax dollars to support schools that debunk modern science might not be wise. See: Christian School Lays Smack Down on Science.

Putting Prayer Back in School: Better Keep the Lid on Pandora’s Box


No school reformer has done more to damage the image of public school teachers than Ms. Rhee. Rhee’s claim to fame rests on raising test scores in miraculous fashion. Unfortunately, certain ugly facts undercut her claims: Michelle Rhee’s Perfect Ponzi Scheme.

Also: Grading School Reformers: Michelle Rhee and the Miracle of Rising Test Scores

         Michelle Rhee Calls for Teachers with Telepathic Powers.


The whole concept that the nation’s public schools are failing (compared to schools in Finland and Japan) is wrong. So what if American students rank 25th in math!!!! What if the same kind of lists prove that America ranks 24th in life expectancy? Are hospitals in America failing?

American Teachers Stink Up the Place Again (but our nation’s judges are doing great).

See: A Fairy Tale Called “Waiting for Superman, Part Two.”

       I Blame Teachers for Everything.
       A Tea Partier’s Guide to American Education.

Finland! Finland, Finland, Finland! All the education experts seem to believe we should copy the model of Finland. Finland Has Smarter Teachers


I’m Facebook friends with hundreds of former students. They keep me posted (Loveland Students: Part Three) on what they’re doing and remind me why I liked teaching so much.


New technology opens up new possibilities in any classroom. The fight to fire students with a desire for learning remains unchanged: Old Tools, New Tools, The Battle is Unchanged.


Fox News hates teachers’ unions. Suddenly, Fox News loves poor down-trodden members of teachers’ unions! Fox News Goes All Warm and Fuzzy for Teachers.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, laid blame for the failure of school reform on recalcitrant teachers and their unions. Mr. Bruni is full of goose stuffing: The Big Evil in U. S. Education: Teachers’ Unions.


We need some school reformer or education expert to explain how vouchers help if a child’s problems are severe and begin and end at home. (If Only Vouchers Worked like Magic Cloaks.)


Want to know why this movie was stupid? Consider what director Davis Guggenheim and critics who loved it missed: A Fairy Tale Called Waiting for Superman.

For my response to the question posed above go to: The Witch-Burning Mentality and Miramonte Elementary School.

One of my former students blamed me for fueling her passion for books.
Betsy's library today.