Parabellum by Greg Hickey: A Book Review by Christina Knowles

After finishing Our Dried Voices by Greg Hickey, which I very much enjoyed, I was excited to receive his new book, Parabellum, in exchange for an honest review. Parabellum (the title is brilliant) starts off with a massacre on a beach in Chicago, then flashes back one year, introducing us to four characters, one of whom we presume to be the mass shooter. This idea was very intriguing and had me instantly interested in these characters. What follows in the majority of the novel are the in-depth psychological studies of four potentially dangerous people and what might cause them to become a murderer. Unfortunately, a too-blatant clue eliminates one of the four right away, which I found immediately disappointing.

The characters are unnamed, which probably serves as a trope to present them as a kind of everyman, but for readability, I found it a bit more difficult to immerse myself in their stories because of this. We know them only as the student, the ex-athlete, the veteran, and the programmer, and their personalities and problems are given to us in detailed and poignant vignettes that are realistic and recognizable. I was able to empathize with all except the programmer, whom I found repugnant. As the lives of the four progress and come full circle back to the present, we are introduced to the victims of the beach massacre in what seems to be an attempt to humanize them and dramatize the event in greater depth. However, it’s too little, too late, and what we get is equivalent to a list of victims’ names and occupations we will not remember in five minutes’ time. While Hickey seems to have a strong understanding of the psyche and is clearly a talented writer, in this case, the end result is a somewhat engaging novel that starts out with a primal scream and suddenly peters out and ends with a disappointing and anti-climactic whimper. An original idea ends all too predictably, never doing justice to the incredible psychological insight of the previous chapters.

And though I was disappointed in the end, I still rather enjoyed the journey through the minds of these all too real characters. I definitely look forward to reading future novels by Greg Hickey. Three out of five stars for this one. —Christina Knowles

Trump’s Taxes Are a Legitimate Concern by Christina Knowles

We all know that Donald Trump lacks the basic qualifications to be president—intelligence, thoughtfulness, reflection, kindness, compassion, empathy, humility, morality, and human decency. We know he is a racist, a misogynist, an alleged rapist, a coward, and a liar. We also know that he is a business failure and a criminal, but now we have the documents that could prove it. The IRS has bought down many powerful men who committed tax fraud, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring down a petty and unintelligent character like Trump.

But, it seems, Trump supporters believe that although he is a repugnant human being, he is a rich and successful businessman. They seem to be misled. Trump’s tax avoidance (which I’m sure will be upgraded to tax evasion) is something every American should find appalling and unacceptable. For those supporters who think Trump is just being a good businessman by taking advantage of tax loopholes, I don’t believe you are seeing the whole picture. First, if his golf courses and hotels are losing millions every year, they would not exist. It is more likely that he is embezzling funds from these businesses and pretending that they are losing money to avoid paying taxes. This is tax fraud and is definitely illegal.

Here’s what I know about claiming a loss from personal experience. I have a freelance writing business, and I am an independent author. My husband is a musician and receives royalties for his music. We have to be very careful taking any deductions related to our businesses because if we claim a loss more than a couple of times, the IRS considers the business a “hobby.” It sounds like Donald Trump has several expensive “hobbies.” Either that or he’s the worst businessman in history. Again, it’s obvious that he’s syphoning the money out of these businesses to support his lifestyle, and in addition, relying on debt to support the illusion of success.

The second thing you may be missing as a defender of Trump is that it’s immoral and unethical to be so privileged while relying on the poor and middle class to pay for your needs. These needs are the roads Trump drives on, the police he thinks he owns, the military he claims he’s expanded, and the Secret Service keeping him alive. We are paying for that. He pays for none of it. And don’t even mention the pittance he donates that is his salary. That doesn’t cover a fraction of the taxes he should be paying—it barely covers his and Melania’s haircuts.

The third thing you are possibly overlooking, Trump-excusers, is the fact that people who carry debt are national security risks. If Trump was a civilian employee on an army base, he would not be granted a security clearance because his debt makes him vulnerable to blackmail and bribery and temptations of illegal activities to relieve the debt. Hmmm, that might explain a few things about his relationship with several undesirable foreign leaders.

Look, I know you may not want to face these difficult facts, but it’s time to do the hard work and look at yourselves and your motivations. Do you care that your president is a criminal? Do you care that people who make $18000 a year pay more taxes than this spoiled, bloated wind bag who has never done an actual day of work in his life? You may think liberals want a free ride from the government. No, that would be Donald Trump. The real freeloader sits in the White House with a blank check.–Christina Knowles

The Four Types of Trump Supporters and Their Political Motivations by Christina Knowles

Fed Up with Tribalism

I think every American is fed up with the political chaos we are enduring in America. Never in my lifetime have I witnessed such division and contention. It’s exhausting and leaves us wondering if tribalism is so bad. Maybe it would be better to stay in our own little tribe, so we don’t have to believe that there are people who passionately believe the exact opposite of what we believe. I face this question every time a new scandal in the Trump presidency hits the news. Every time Donald Trump is caught doing or saying something illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid, I wonder how his supporters, some of whom seem like nice people otherwise, are able to so easily brush it aside and dismiss it, even excuse and defend it. There is a level of cognitive dissonance that is not easily explained by the “They’re all racists” justification. It seems like there is a daily influx of new evidence of Trump’s inadequacies in the area of basic human decency, but the support from his base does not waver, even from those who would not normally condone this behavior themselves. This led me to consider Trump supporters and their motivations, and I discovered that I could identify four different kinds of people who seem to think Trump is a good choice to run our country despite how terrible he’s doing at it and in spite of how repugnant of a person he is.

The Four Types of Trump Supporters

I believe there are at least four distinct types of Trump supporters, and this is why we scratch our heads in dismay when we find out someone we really like is a Trumper. Let me explain my theory. 

  1. The Power-Hungry Bandwagon Follower: These people attach themselves to anybody who seems to have power, popularity, and influence; an example would be Michael Cohen. They are seduced by the ability of Trump to get his way and command seemingly irrational things, openly lying and committing ethically questionable acts without losing favor or suffering consequences. They too want to have this power and think they will get it by their association with Trump. We’ve seen many of these people cast aside by Trump after they have served their purpose.
  2. Racists and Misogynists: The second type of supporters are ignorant racists who admire an old white guy who can get away with voicing openly prejudiced and misogynistic rhetoric. They seem to think he’s their ticket to stomping down anyone getting in their way of being the dominant race. They see Trump as the great white savior who will defend their privilege and give them a platform for their hate. Clearly, extremists and white supremacists like the Boogaloos, the Proud Boys, and the KKK all seem to find Trump appealing; perhaps, because he calls them “very fine people.” The scientifically illiterate and gun-toting militia wannabes often fall into this category as well. 
  3. The Conservative and/or Religious Right: The third type of Trump supporters are the conservative and/or religious right who swallow their innate disgust at his racism, at his crude remarks about women, at his clear disdain for the handicapped, at his stupidity regarding pretty much everything—in order to advance what they see as the greater good. Many of them fool themselves into believing that God chose Trump, however ungodly he is, to accomplish his work of stacking the Supreme Court with conservatives who will outlaw abortion, protect religious freedom (which is not in danger, by the way), overturn the Affordable Health Care Act, slow immigration, and ensure a minimum of gun restrictions. Several previously ethical and principled people have locked away their morals and swallowed their objections in order to ensure a generation of protections for these conservative goals. (Read Bob Woodward’s Rage for several firsthand confessions of this type of Trump follower). These supporters need to ask themselves to revisit the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”
  4. The Victim of Conservative Pundits: The fourth type of Trump follower is the heavily brainwashed Fox News viewer, or perhaps, a victim of other conservative media. These Trump supporters are always in an indignant rage about the evils of the Democratic party and are indoctrinated by a variety of conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate, which is on par with flat earth conspiracy theories. They live in fear of losing the America they have always idealized. Many of these victims are elderly or otherwise cutoff from diverse views in the community. Because they are only getting information by heavily biased sources designed to manipulate them, they live in fear and disgust of anyone on the “radical left.” Even though they may know a few Democrats that are “good,” they believe there is a conspiracy by Democrats to destroy the foundations of American exceptionalism, and even worse. They fear riots destroying the suburbs, the abolition of the police, losing their economic viability, and their American way of life. They, in fact, seem to believe that there are no moderates or right leaning Democrats or left leaning Republicans at all. They are sheltered and have a skewed view of the other side.

Lies Trump Supporters Believe about Democrats

The average Trump supporter never hears that many Democrats own guns and only support moderate gun restrictions like background checks. They never hear that many Democrats abhor abortion and want to have as few as possible, but think that banning abortion isn’t the way to solve this problem. They never realize that many Democrats believe in capitalism and hard work and paying taxes, and getting something for their money like the Social Security and Medicare they paid into their entire lives. They don’t know that many Democrats are Christians and believe in protecting religious freedom and that they believe the best way to do that is to honor the separation of church and state. They never hear that many Democrats don’t believe in getting something for nothing. Many Democrats want humane immigration laws, they want a social safety net that lifts people up and doesn’t encourage a freeloading society, they want affordable college so that the entire country can rise economically, and so that they can all realize the American dream regardless of the circumstances of their births. They never hear that some Democrats don’t believe that these things should just be free and are perfectly willing to attach conditions, such as work requirements and/or giving back to the community that helped them. They never hear that while Democrats want a system of justice that is fair and equal to all, they still want law and order. They still want violence stopped and criminals prosecuted. 

But they won’t be hearing that on Fox News, Glen Beck, or the 700 Club. It’s not in their interests to let them see the nuances and the similarities we all share. It’s not in their interests to let them see Democrats as good Americans or even human beings. We are all guilty of our tribal associations and our preference for confirmation bias. If you want to understand how you are being manipulated, please watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It’s time to look beyond all that and talk to our neighbors, our family members with different views, and the people we’ve avoided because we think we know who they are. I just stereotyped four types of Trump supporters. Prove me wrong. Let me know who you really are and why you really support Trump. Let’s have a conversation, and maybe we will learn a little about who we really are beyond what we are told to believe.

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means

      Numerous political scientists and historians have identified Trump and his obvious dictatorial tendencies as an existential threat to our system of government and our very freedom. I get why some Republicans put away their objections and followed Trump through that door, but by now, you should be realizing that some doors shouldn’t be used. It’s time to get back to governing. We need a government that represents all of us, a government that knows how to compromise and work together and create unity. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Democratic Socialists, Libertarians, and every other political group need to compromise. Living in a pluralistic society means none of us gets everything we want. We all should get something we can live with. That’s what it means to live in a country like ours—Out of many, one. We need to stop justifying bad methods of achieving our important goals. Instead, let’s talk, negotiate, and find something we can all accept, and in the process, we can accept each other, rather than accepting more and more bad behavior from our leaders.—Christina Knowles

Afterthought: If you are really interested in practical ways in which all of our political parties can work together, cooperate, compromise, and have a fair voice, please read Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein. The first half of the book is an explanation of how we got here, but the second half is full of intelligent ideas of how we could all have a more fair and productive relationship with those of opposing views and how our government could get back to effective governing.

Photo via intercept.com

Greg Hickey’s Our Dried Voices Book Review by Christina Knowles

Our Dried Voices
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I really try not to compare books I review to other more famous books, especially when they really are not knock-offs at all, but in the case of Our Dried Voices by Greg Hickey, it’s hard not to. Don’t get me wrong. This book is definitely its own original work, but still, it is impossible to read without looking back nostalgically to a couple of familiar prized works, and I mean this in the best possible sense. This dystopian novel is reminiscent of both The Time Machine by HG Wells and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

The book is set far into the future. Samuel, who appears to be more intelligent than anyone else in his community, has an awakening of sorts, which stems from noticing things that go awry and setting about to, at first, just fix them, and later, to solve the mystery of who is behind the strange mishaps that befall his village, and figure out why they are happening. Like the character Equality 7-2521 in Anthem, Samuel wants to make a difference and befriends a slightly less intelligent female, Penny, similar to Anthem’s Liberty 5-3000. The similarities continue, but unlike Rand’s collectivist criticism, Hickey makes us think more deeply on the issues of the “nanny state.” Like HG Wells in The Time Machine, Hickey postulates on the de-evolution of humanity in a perfect Eden where there is nothing left to do but eat, sleep, and frolic in the garden, having sex with whoever is nearby and willing. Does work make humanity smarter? Does work give existence meaning? At the very least, it seems to prevent the de-evolution of the mind and body. But Hickey goes further, asking what gives us purpose and joy?

Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll say that the answer is left somewhat up to us; however, the implication may be that trading one controlling ideology for another may not be the right answer. Ultimately, freedom is necessary to grow and be happy, much like Equality and Liberty find when they reach their cabin in the woods.

At any rate, I found this novel to be extremely engrossing. I thoroughly enjoyed it right up to the end of Samuel’s story. However, I think this is where the book should have ended. I wish I could have set the book down, satisfied with the knowledge of Samuel’s outcome and been done. But what followed titled, “From the handwritten manuscript ‘The Early History of the pearl colony’” (Kindle Locations 2705-2706), was an extensive and boring fictional history leading up to where the book starts. This history includes mostly dates of when certain diseases were cured, leading up to the Eden of Samuel’s community. I struggled with the purpose of this chronology, which seemed to be some kind of commentary against science, or perhaps, it was a warning against population explosion. It seemed to be saying that by curing these diseases and extending life, we took away any possibility of living fulfilling lives. Whether that’s what was meant or not, it pulled me out of the fantasy of the book and made me question important themes in the novel, wondering if I had even understood the point at all. The title also bothered me. I think I understood the point that we lose what we do not use, but it seemed like there should have been some connecting point more clearly tying the title to the novel.

With all that being said, I gave this book four out of five stars because, although I think it could have been better, it certainly ranks up there with many of our favorite and important dystopian novels that we look back on and say, “So and so predicted this would happen.” Maybe someday we’ll experience a dystopian moment and say, “Hickey warned us about this,” but I certainly hope not.

Thanks to the author who gifted this book to me in exchange for an honest review. 

–Christina Knowles

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90 Days with God by Christina Knowles

IMG_2137Ninety days ago, I was convinced that I was doing something wrong. I was once again struggling with my faith–not in God–but with the bible. I just couldn’t make myself believe that it was the inerrant word of God, or the word of God at all. It seemed full of contradictions, there was no original text to track changes, and even if there was an original, it wouldn’t prove it was true, just old. Many things seemed to contradict what we know from science, but most of all, God did not seem like a perfect and divine being to me. He seemed like a man, a man created by a patriarchal culture, a flawed man, who valued vengeance and demanded worship to feed a man-sized ego that seemed to go against my idea of an all-powerful perfect and good god. Not only that, the god of the bible seemed to contradict himself. He demanded things from us that he did not deliver on himself, namely humility and mercy. He also created imperfect beings, gave them free will, and then demanded that they “freely” obey him, accept him, believe in him, or be punished.

Furthermore, it really bothered me that it blatantly states many places in the bible that God causes certain people to not believe; he closes their eyes and hearts to the truth, so they cannot receive him and salvation. How is that free will? And how is that fair? Supposedly, he then uses them to fulfill his purposes. Not only does this seem unfair, it seems downright evil. But because I believed God had revealed to me his existence, I thought it must be me. I’m not praying enough, or I have unconfessed sin, or I don’t have enough faith because I don’t read the bible enough, everything that most churches will tell you that you need to do in order to develop a close relationship with Christ. I have been told that I over-think everything, and I shouldn’t expect to understand it all. So I decided to do everything I could to do what was supposed to help me believe and have the right attitude. I committed to spending ninety days with God, praying, asking for faith, asking for God to reveal truth to me, reading the bible, journaling about what I read, and worshiping with music and meditation. Today I completed that commitment.

Every day I started by asking forgiveness for my unbelief and by praying Psalms 51:10-11, which says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence,
 And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (NKJV). I prayed for God to work in my heart, help me to understand what was illogical to me or make me not care that certain things didn’t make sense to me, to soften my heart toward the scripture. In short, to have faith, and I was sincere.

I began reading the New Testament in Matthew and read through Acts. Everyday I would read a chapter or more, continuing until coming to a logical place to stop in the narrative, or slowing down when I required more thought on a passage. I would highlight it, meditate on it, pray for understanding, and then journal my thoughts and a prayer or two to God. I would end with another similar prayer, but more personal. Later in the day, I would listen to praise music and worship along with it.

When I first made this commitment, I honestly thought to myself that this was my last chance. I had devoted hours, days, and weeks to reading theology, bible commentary, listening and calling into Christian talk shows, and looking for answers to questions I didn’t understand. I thought if this didn’t work, I was done. I would devote no more of life to searching in vain. The first few weeks were hard. I didn’t want to do it, I dreaded it, and I even had nightmares about the church being a cult that I needed to escape. Some people said this was a spiritual attack, and others said it was my subconscious telling me what I really thought about the religion.

Previously, I had always thought that most of my problems were with the Old Testament-version of God. He is the one who commanded that whole races be wiped out, including small children and people who had nothing to do with whatever the rest were guilty of. He was the one who said to stone children who disobeyed, kill homosexuals, and plunder villages, leaving no one alive. But while reading the New Testament, I saw similar contradictions. For one thing, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles advocated for the behavior in the Old Testament and keeping the law. And then I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. To paraphrase, the early church members sold their personal belongings and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to distribute to anyone as they had need. Well, Ananias and Sapphira sold their land, and gave some of the proceeds to the church. Peter confronted them saying, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:1-4, NKJV). Ananias, after hearing these words, fell down and died. Then Peter asked Sapphira if the amount they gave was the whole price they had received, and she lied, saying yes. Then Peter, knowing she lied, asked, “‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (Acts 5; 9-11, NKJV). Presumably, God struck them down for having an unfortunately natural human reaction. Yes, I realize that in Christianity, natural human reactions are sin, but if Ananias and Sapphira would have been given a minute to think about it, feel guilty about it, they most likely would have changed their minds and given it all. I mean, they didn’t have to give any of it, so they obviously believed in the cause, but the normal human reaction is to be afraid, afraid to give up everything and trust. If they were condemned for a momentary lapse of trust, then we are all doomed.

Whenever I’ve heard this story taught in church, the pastor always emphasizes that Ananias and Sapphira lied to God, not just men, and it wasn’t about the money, and God knew their hearts. So what? Does that make it right? Does that mean they deserve to be struck dead? I’ve always had a problem with a major tenet of the Christian religion–the idea that because we are all sinners, we deserve to go to everlasting punishment. I agree, no one is perfect. No one is worthy–wait, worthy of what? Heaven? Life? In the bible punishment for sin is death. Okay, that seems reasonable in some cases, maybe. But flaming torment forever? I don’t believe anyone deserves that. To me that sounds like a human invention, an angry vengeful, wronged, and bitter human answer to taking care of people who do things they don’t like. So, I don’t care if it was about the money or lying to God or being selfish or lacking faith. They didn’t deserve it. And I don’t believe a loving father-God makes examples out of his children, so others will learn. Would you let one of your children step in front of a speeding vehicle, so the rest of your children will learn to look both ways? I long for answers, but everywhere the answers are shallow, don’t make any sense, or just fall way too short of logic. You may be thinking, and I’ve been told this many times, that I am arrogant, thinking my idea of right and wrong, good and evil is right or better than God’s. I do rely on my moral judgement and inner conscience to determine right and wrong, but we all do; we don’t really have a choice unless we choose to blindly accept what anyone tells us. Christians do this when they choose to believe in Christianity rather than Buddhism or Islam or anything else. It seems morally right or better to them. The idea of the Christian god lines up with their moral judgements about who God should be better than other religions, and as it turns out, I think I am more moral than the god of the bible.

I continued reading, praying, and worshiping anyway, but my heart moved further and further from God. Did I even want to believe this stuff? The miracles didn’t bother me. If God created the world, then he could part the Red Sea, but the fact that he doesn’t obviously reveal himself to most of the world makes me wonder, makes me doubt. Doesn’t he want everyone to believe if there is really eternal torment at stake? Why the big game of hide and seek? The stock answer from Christians is faith. But if God felt it no problem to reveal himself to the Old Testament people, why not us? Why are we expected to believe on less evidence than them? Why the rule change? We need to believe without seeing, but they didn’t? Wait, I thought God doesn’t change? He seems to change a lot between the Old and New Testaments, but not enough. Just about as much as the culture had changed–hmmm, I was beginning to see why.

The other stock answer is free will. But this also makes no sense. Satan supposedly knows who God is, has personally met him, knows his power and his reported goodness, but he was still able to reject God, so the free will argument does not work. Theoretically, God could step out of the sky and introduce himself, and we could still reject him. So why not? Where is he hiding?

Another disturbing thing to me is the magnitude of contradictions in the bible about the basic tenets of salvation. Every religion claims to know exactly what, as Paul puts it, is the “Way” to salvation, but how could they, when it is not at all clear in the scriptures? For example, and I could give you many, it says in Acts 2:38, Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (NKJV). Catholics believe we have to be baptized to be saved, and Protestants believe it is by faith alone we are saved, and baptism is merely a symbolic gesture, part of the public profession of faith. When I ask Protestant Christians about this, I always get referred to a different part of scripture that says the opposite. But that only proves it’s contradictory, not which way is right. The very fact that it is contradictory may point to none of it being right.

Then the other thing that many Christians disagree about, but seem to think is really a non-issue, is the idea of predestination or Calvinism–that God chooses to whom he will give knowledge and faith, and who will be saved. Here is one verse among many that supports that: “Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,
 Lest they should see with their eyes,
 Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
 So that I should heal them’” (John 12:39-40). Verses like this made me think that I must be one of those people that God blinds because no matter what I do, I doubt. But then there are verses like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). Again, this doesn’t prove anyone can be saved; it just proves the bible contradicts itself, and no one, no matter what they say, can know the true “Way.” By the way, if I am one of these people God blinds just to send to hell, even though I earnestly and honestly sought him–well, that’s a pretty sick game to play with people he supposedly loves. Another example of the character of “God.”

Now some Christians say that this is not important; we can go on regardless of which way it is, but I can’t see how. If the bible contradicts itself, it cannot be trusted, so therefore, all of it is in question. I do see obvious moral lessons and wisdom from some parts of the bible that are valuable, as I do with the wisdom of many religions, but I cannot base my beliefs on it, especially when so many things in it contradict my own internal moral values, things like God ordering the killing of entire groups of people because some of them have rebelled, or raping and pillaging, subjugating women, or condemning homosexuals for feelings they did not choose. The more I study the bible, the more it seems like merely a book written by very flawed and prejudiced individuals with no knowledge of science, sometimes good, sometimes helpful, often not, very often damaging to society.

So the conclusion of my ninety days with God is that I don’t believe I was spending time with a god at all when I was studying the bible. I don’t know if there is a god or not. Maybe there is a creator who put things in motion and had a plan for us, maybe that plan involves us learning to love each other and to live in peace with each other on our own. Not so much a creator who is pulling the strings of our daily lives, shutting the hearts of certain men to use as villains in his master plan, not so much condemning us for doing what comes naturally, but one that put a higher calling inside of us, an altruistic impulse that causes us to become more than we what we are, that inspires me to be more than just me. Or more likely, this impulse evolved as helpful trait for community survival. I don’t know if a god set the world in motion and left us to learn these lessons on our own and evolve into a better human race, or maybe there is a  creator who is not good at all. Maybe he created life and then left us to evolve on our own, no not involved in the details of our lives at all.  But I can’t know if any of this is true, and neither can anyone else. In fact, the more I study science, and evolution, in particular, the more I doubt that there is any creator at all. And if there is, who cares? It doesn’t seem to affect my daily experience. I see no evidence that there is one, so I should live as if there is not one.

I, however, am not a relativist. I do believe there is an absolute truth, and this truth exists whether or not we know what it is. But I don’t believe anyone who says they do know it, and I don’t believe this truth is found in the bible. I am only capable of judging things by my own carefully constructed standards, the same as everyone else. I think that Christians who accept the bible’s morality do so because it already agrees with their own internalized morality, so it seems right to them. Or they haven’t read the bible and are just going by the nice ideas they’ve heard are in there. Or they are so indoctrinated from years of living in a Christian culture that they just don’t recognize how abhorrent the bible is.

Finally, I don’t need or want a reward for being good, and neither do I deserve to go to hell for being human. I’ve come to terms with this. I may be wrong. If I am wrong, then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make myself believe something I don’t, and I’ve decided that even if I did believe it, I wouldn’t follow the evil god depicted in the bible. I feel like these past ninety days was me trying to brainwash myself into believing again, and it wouldn’t work because once I woke up and realized that the bible is just a flawed book, I couldn’t un-know it. I’m breaking free of the cult of religion once and for all. (By the way, I believe my dreams were my subconscious mind telling me what I believed all along.) From now on I will live as the free person I am, free to be good without god, and determining how I can make the world a better place for me and everyone else, especially since this is likely the only life we will ever know. It’s even more reason to live a good life now and enjoy it without all the stress of making sense of something that makes no sense. So, the result of my 90 days with “God” is that I found out there is nothing wrong with me. I have just awakened to reality. If you are a believer, I highly recommend spending your own 90 days getting to know your “God.” You may be surprised at what you find.–Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Don’t Give Us Your Huddled Masses by Christina Knowles

Anti-Immigrant2

Recently, I have witnessed many angry outbursts on social media regarding the approximately 100,000 unaccompanied immigrant children pouring over the border, originating from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, choosing to leave their families and risk the dangers of traveling alone to cross the border in search of hope and safety. These children, who are fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland, turn themselves in to American immigration authorities and beg for help. But apparently, numerous Americans, many of whom claim to be pro-life, refuse compassion to these starving, freezing, and abused children, and just want them immediately deported—sent back to the violence and chaos from whence they fled. I do not understand this curious and callous lack of common decency and compassion for these suffering children.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted this on his wall: “I am ashamed that SO MANY Texans will argue that a fetus is a living human and deserves to live a full life. But when a little ACTUAL FOREIGN kid shows up on your doorstep. All of the sudden you find every excuse as to why you can’t take care of it.” This caught my attention because I have always wondered about this particular paradox myself.

Before I had a chance to chime in, a person, whom I do not know and who will remain anonymous, responded, “But it’s ok for some bimbo who can’t get her shit together and get on BC or keep her legs shut to have multiple abortions. In some cases these late term abortion babies are born alive and left to die. That’s so f—ing sad. Your [spelling was not corrected] right I’m not taking care of a little American or foreign child. I did not make that choice to have sex and create them. In the form of taxes you could say I already do take care of them. People are put in jail for animal abuse and it’s ok to murder someone you never gave a chance to live.”

Apparently, she wanted to prove his point. For some reason, many people in the pro-life movement only seem to advocate for the lives of unborn children, which, forgive me, strikes me as pro-birth, or even anti-abortion, but not pro-life. I, personally, don’t think one should label oneself pro-life, unless one is also interested in respecting all life, protecting the dignity of all living beings, having compassion on them, and doing one’s best to elevate their situation out of suffering. Unfortunately, these remarks and lack of concern for anyone except unborn fetuses are typical. Fetuses may, indeed, be human beings who have the right to live, but because another human being’s health and well-being is also involved, abortion is a complicated issue, but the question of whether or not to help these child refugees should not be complicated at all.

Most people who hold a hard line against illegal immigrants, in this case, more properly identified as refugees, do so because they fear that sharing our resources with others will cause our own people to go without. However, “the irony with today’s anti-immigrants is that they are themselves descendants of uninvited immigrants who came from countries lacking in opportunity a few hundred years before” (Headbloom). And although the angry and indignant reaction of those in opposition to any humanitarian aid for these children is based in selfish instinct, I suppose this is somewhat understandable. It will require sacrifice on our part. However, if we are to be the leaders of the free world we say that we are, then we need to set a humanitarian example. “The US is constantly insisting that countries around the world accept refugees. Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan are all accepting millions of Syrians, for example. They are much less equipped to do so based on their economies and their size in comparison to the numbers arriving,” according to Brenna Daldorph, journalist for France 24. Aren’t we, at least, willing to live up to the humanitarian standards we expect from others?

But beyond our reputation, I would like these people to consider that, both personally, and as a nation, our most valuable possessions are our character and compassion, and if we are able and willing to coldly refuse help to those who cannot help themselves, especially children, who through no fault of their own, flee horrific conditions for the chance at a better life—or any life at all, then we have nothing worth preserving anyway.

How soon we forget our own history and what this country has long represented. America has always been a nation of immigrants, and we used to be proud of it. We visit the Statue of Liberty and read the beautiful words inscribed there:

Copyright 2011. Jake Bowen & Alan Headbloom.
Copyright 2011. Jake Bowen & Alan Headbloom.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus)

And we are moved and proud. But we have no reason for this pride any longer because too many of us don’t care about the huddled masses, the suffering, the starving. And why? Because we want to keep everything for ourselves. We don’t want to lose what we have and become like them. But by doing so, by protecting ourselves from them, we have become something far worse. We are not even worthy of them or of our own heritage. If this is who we’ve become, if this is who we will be, then we truly have lost the best of who we once were.

As Americans, we need to once again become the nation worthy of being that “beacon of light,” that “shining city on the hill,” the country that stands against tyranny, protects the weak and downtrodden, and offers comfort and shelter at least as often as it wields its mighty force and influence. Like my friend who originally posted that he was ashamed, I don’t want to be ashamed of America anymore. I want to be proud, proud to be a citizen of a country who lives up to the lofty ideals of our forefathers, even if it costs us something. The price of protecting these children, we can afford. It is much more expensive not to; it will cost us everything, at least everything that matters—our character and our ideals.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Sources:

Five False Presumptions Christians Make About Non-believers by Christina Knowles

Snagged from google images.
Snagged from google images.

There are five presumptions that many Christians make regarding non-believers that are destructive and simply not true. As a person who has wavered back and forth between belief and unbelief, I have had to confront these myths frequently. They offend me, insult me, and hurt me every time I am exposed to them, and plainly put, they are a result of an ignorance of the lives of non-believers and experiences outside the Christian community.

1) YOU CAN’T REALLY BE HAPPY OR HAVE MEANING WITHOUT CHRIST AS THE CENTER OF YOUR LIFE. Nine years ago, when I was a single mom and not a believer in Christ or God at all, I was happy, extremely happy. I felt as if I was living out my purpose. I loved my job, I loved my kids, I loved my life. In fact, I have had far greater unhappiness and confusion about the meaning of life as a Christian than with any other belief system. And at times when I embraced no belief whatsoever, I was very much at peace, free from the confusion and ambivalence of believing some, but not all, of the bible. I don’t necessarily think happiness is the purpose of life, and it has nothing to do with my unbelief; however, I get really tired of hearing things about myself that I know are simply not true. For example, I heard a well-known pastor say on a Christian talk radio show the other day, this ridiculous statement: “Have you ever met someone who was not a Christian that was totally, enthusiastically happy? Of course not. Me neither.” Uh, yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve known numerous enthusiastically happy atheists and people who practice other religions as well.

2) YOU CAN’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD MARRIAGE UNLESS YOU PUT CHRIST FIRST IN YOUR MARRIAGE. I have an extremely happy marriage, and Christ is definitely not at the center of it and probably never has been. Although my husband is a man of strong faith and professes true belief and commitment to Christ, I have only been an actively believing Christian for about two and half of the years we’ve been married, and even during these periods, we always put each other first, and still do. We treat each other unselfishly, with kindness, we don’t ever name-call or even shout at each other in a disagreement because we respect each other, admire each other, esteem each other better than ourselves. There is no adherence to traditional roles, no mandate to submissiveness, no ridiculous idea that he, as a man, needs respect more than love, or I, as a woman, need love more than respect. We both need love and respect equally. I believe we would be just as happy with each other and treat each other as well if either one of us were atheists, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhists, or a number of other religions.

3)YOU CAN’T GENUINELY LOVE PEOPLE OR PUT OTHERS BEFORE YOURSELF WITHOUT THE SUPERNATURAL HELP OF GOD. I never had a problem having a soft heart towards a vast number of people. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I believe strongly in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. I cannot hold a grudge even if I want to. I find it easy to love my students, my family, my friends, and even those I dislike at first, I can easily come to care about if I see the vulnerable side of them. When Christians say this, it makes me believe that they are the ones who have difficulty loving others if they truly believe it takes a supernatural effort to do it. I, personally, don’t find it that difficult.

This is the myth that actually inspired this blog. Because I am pretty open about my inability to believe the bible, I occasionally receive mail or comments from well-meaning people concerned for my soul. I can live with that. There are worse things than knowing that someone out there cares enough about me to pray for me and to worry about where I will spend eternity. So recently, I was open to having a conversation with a Christian woman who said she wished to discuss my unbelief and faith struggles. I should have seen the warning signs that were always there, but I didn’t. I try to assume the best about people, so I brushed them aside, and told myself that I was merely being defensive. I wasn’t.

This particular woman had previously made comments about how she was praying for me to be able to “deal” with my students (I’m a high school teacher). She mentioned a few times how I needed God’s strength to do this. At the time I thought it was strange. I don’t find it difficult to interact with my students. In fact, my students are the best part of my job. They are fun, entertaining, at times sweet, very lovable, intellectually fascinating, and I see them as my “other kids.” I love talking to them, teaching them, I hurt for them when they struggle, I laugh with them about all kinds of things, I listen to their problems, learn from their insights and experiences, and I cry and celebrate when I see them graduate. So, I brushed aside the feeling that she was somehow concerned that I was unable to show kindness to them or care about them merely because I was unable to have faith that God is good or believe the bible. After all, a lot of people who don’t work with teenagers seem to think that that would be the difficult part of the job. It’s not. Almost all high school teachers enjoy their students and consider their time with them the best thing about teaching.

So, I decided to see what she had to say, if she had any insight that I hadn’t considered, but when she contacted me, she made it very clear that she was not concerned about me at all, but for my influence on my students. She implied—no strike that—she told me directly that without God’s supernatural ability to love, I could not show love to my students, and she was concerned and praying for me so that I would have God’s help in order to show my poor students kindness and love. Naturally, I was very hurt and extremely insulted. Not only did she not care about me at all, she assumed I did not care for or treat my students with love and kindness. Newsflash:  All people are capable of love, at times unconditional love, at times self-sacrificing love. Christians are not any more capable of this than anyone else. In fact, those who hold dogmatic beliefs, often struggle with this concept more than others, but even they are capable.

4) YOU NEED FAITH IN GOD AND SUPERNATURAL STRENGTH TO BE A MORAL PERSON. Again, I don’t find this particularly difficult. I am not trying to say I am a perfect person, without sin, without a mean thought, or that I haven’t said something I regret that’s hurt someone. I have. But I am a moral person with high standards of ethics by which I actively try to live. I believe most people who have internalized a moral code, whether or not they are believers, tend to do good things and avoid evil things, and those who have low moral standards won’t be any different because they convert to a certain religion. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is my overall experience. In addition, some of the most kind, compassionate, and moral people I have ever met have been atheists. If you need supernatural strength to be moral, then you probably have not really internalized your moral beliefs.

5) IF AFTER BELIEVING IN THE TENETS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH AND SINCERELY FOLLOWING CHRIST, YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND THROUGH RATIONAL THOUGHT AND INTENSE INVESTIGATION, YOU MUST NEVER HAVE REALLY BEEN SAVED. Well, the last one would only be true if there is no god or no salvation because if one sincerely believed and confessed with his mouth, then according to Christian belief, they were saved. Some Christians believe a person can lose salvation and others believe one can’t. Either way, it does not change the fact that according to Christian belief, they were, at one time, saved.

However, if there is no such thing, then it is true, they never were. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that the belief and profession were once real. Christians should not presume that people are putting on a façade or that they did not truly believe and commit at one time. It is all too easy for Christians to explain away apostasy by assuming there was something wrong with the initial conversion of someone who reneges on a life of accepting what makes no sense without faith and acceptance in the “I’m not God, so I’ll never understand” mentality. It is the only way they can justify anyone abandoning Christianity.

But the truth is, numerous people who were sincere in their faith and commitment at the time of their conversions are leaving the faith daily. Still others are afraid to “come out” with their doubts and questions for fear of attacks from the Christian community as we recently saw in the case of Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay when he merely questioned mainstream religious views on gay marriage.

This is extremely common, but the fact is, people do have questions, and it’s okay to say that the bible does not make sense to them without being accused of being incapable of happiness, lacking purpose, or having a difficult marriage full of conflict. They should not be accused of being incapable of selfless love, powerless to act according to moral behavior, or be accused of “pretending” to be a Christian when they used to actually believe, but have later thoughtfully, carefully, and agonizingly come to the conclusion that they cannot maintain faith in these beliefs.

The perpetuation of these myths that some Christians hold toward non-believers is shallow and destructive to others, which I do not believe is a stated Christian value. Furthermore, it shows a lack of observation and understanding of the real world and the people in it, and serves no purpose apart from inflating the hubris of the pious by believing they have access to special abilities that no one else supposedly does. It would be much more helpful to realize that we are all humans with the same types of thoughts, feelings, fears, and often times, motivations. Christians don’t have a monopoly on happiness and ethics, and we all are capable of goodness, we are all flawed, and we are all human, regardless of beliefs.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2014

Class Size Matters: Overcrowded and Under-Reached in the American Classroom by Christina Knowles

Snagged from eagnews.org
Snagged from eagnews.org

Unfortunately, we are at a point in history where teachers need to defend the importance of smaller classes on student achievement and future success, as if this were not common sense. This is a clear indication that lack of funding, or perhaps mismanagement of finances has become such an issue that those in charge of schools are trying to deny what we all intuitively know is true—one teacher cannot effectively teach 30 plus students in one class. The pressures of new teacher evaluations requiring personalized, individual instruction plans and nearly daily communication with parents creates an impossible situation for the teacher. Gone are the days when teachers merely brought home grading every night. Now teachers struggle to keep up with individual lesson plans, tracking individual students, documenting data, keeping up with parent contacts, and grading. Catching up and completing work is now impossible, no matter how many outside hours are put in, and the stress of these demands is driving experienced, quality teachers from the profession in a mass exodus, and they are quickly replaced by first year teachers who do not know what they are in for. On the middle school and high school levels, teachers are required to personally know and teach five or more 30-plus-student classes of different students. The real injustice is to the student who is expected to focus in an overcrowded classroom with an overworked teacher who cannot possibly give them individual attention—that, and the fact that teachers continue to be held accountable for what students learn, despite the fact that class sizes and duties have become unmanageable for anyone, regardless of his or her skill, dedication, or experience.

As the last school year drew to a close at the high school where I teach, the faculty was called into the auditorium for a meeting with the district administration to discuss cuts in the budget that would result in letting some teachers go and letting vacated positions go unfilled. Before the cuts, my classes ranged from 28-38 students per class, which I have gotten used to, but according to research, are too large. I was grateful for these numbers because at one point the year before, most of my classes ranged from 45-52 students per class, which was completely unmanageable. We were reassured that class sizes would not go up much, but this did not prepare us for what came out of a high-level district leader’s mouth next. He spoke to an auditorium full of stressed-out teachers, who had just finished struggling to provide documentation of a vast array of new responsibilities for our yearly evaluations, many of which were not in our control at all, but also including one-on-one instruction, differentiation, and tracking of each individual student. He smiled and said in a completely casual but serious tone, “But we all know class size doesn’t matter if you’re a good enough teacher, right?” Audible gasps filled the auditorium. Shocked at the audacity of such a statement, I turned and gazed around the large room, taking in the stunned faces, the mouths dropped open in disbelief. The room became silent. It seemed everyone was speechless. Nervously, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and uttered a barely audible, “Umm, I disagree with that statement.” The room burst into conversation, and soon others snapped out of their stunned silence and began disputing the remark uttered so casually and without regard for common sense.

Nevertheless, cuts were made, and I started the year with 42 students in my largest class and 33 in my smallest. Couple that with a rigorous new set of responsibilities, Common Core requirements, three preps, and a new online program with which we were to become proficient, and the familiar thought popped into my head: What else can I do with my English degree? But worse than the large classes was the realization that we were just not respected anymore. The idea that our own district leadership thought we would fall for a pathetic line of flattery or shame us into admitting we must not be “good enough teachers” was just too much.

One of our evaluation requirements is that we research “best practices,” so I did just that. Guess what I discovered? I discovered that it is not only common sense, but that actual documented research shows that the optimal class size is between 15-18 students for achievement and future success. I would be thrilled with 25! Studies also show that the overall load of the teacher should be lightened, particularly for English teachers and teachers with a heavy grading load. A high school teacher should ideally have no more than 80 students total. This year I have 170 students, more than double the optimum.

I’ll let you read the research for yourself, but let me just speak from experience for a moment. The year that I had 52 students in one class—no learning occurred. I shouted over the students, no one could hear anything. In a class of 52 students, I could not even see over the heads to the back of the room. If every student murmured, it was a low roar, blocking out my voice. I spent most of my time trying to keep them safe when boys began wrestling in the back where I couldn’t see or when an argument broke out over a snatched notebook. I couldn’t even make my way through the desks to the back of the room. I wrote dozens of detentions to try and gain control, but most of the students ignored them, and I had no power to enforce them. Nothing happened to them if they didn’t show up, and I was criticized for writing too many detentions. On the rare occasion when I got them working on something, and I stopped to help one student, the entire class erupted into noise and chaos. I spent my entire evening calling parents and did not have time to grade the little homework that actually came in. The students complained that they couldn’t hear the instruction and did not understand what was going on. In 14 years of teaching, I have never previously had issues with classroom management. My room was not even large enough to fit that many desks, so some students were sitting on the floor. This year is not that bad. I have a quiet and controlled class, and our current administration supports our discipline, but students are not able to get one-on-one instruction, and it took a couple of months just to learn their names. The idea that I am supposed to get to know each of these students, their learning styles, tailor instruction to their needs, monitor their growth, provide tutoring, and keep parents informed is ludicrous. But that is exactly what is expected of me because it wouldn’t be a problem if I were “good enough.”

But if common sense and experience are not enough to convince you, I have listed the research here, complete with links because the evidence is too astronomically large to synthesize in this blog, and this is only a fraction of what I found. For your convenience, I will list the source after each, rather than at the end.

I found this one particularly interesting because we are supposed to avoid lecture-style classes in favor of more hands-on, engaging lessons, but the research shows large class sizes increase lecture-style teaching out of necessity. “The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), p5-21. ‘Good summary showing that “empirical evidence…suggests that there are eight deleterious outcomes associated with large-sized classes: (1) increased faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction, (2) less active student involvement in the learning process, (3) reduced frequency of instructor interaction with and feedback to students, (4) reduced depth of student thinking inside the classroom, (5) reduced breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning strategies used by students outside the classroom, (6) lower levels of academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades), (7) reduced overall course satisfaction with the learning experience, and (8) lower student ratings (evaluations) of course instruction.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#benefits%20for%20post-secondary%20education Cuseo, J. (2007).

     This one finds that keeping fewer teachers for budgetary reasons is not cost effective after all, particularly when funding is withheld for lower test scores. “This policy brief summarizes the academic literature on the impact of class size and finds that class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.  Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.” Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). “Does Class Size Matter?” National Education Policy Center Policy Brief.

   “’Further research suggests that schools are organized more for purposes of maintaining control than for promoting learning’ (McNeil, 1988), and ‘Small class size is integral to this individualization: Teachers should be responsible for a smaller number of students so that they can get to know each student and his or her learning preferences. It takes time to get to know one’s students and to individualize the learning experience, and doing so requires concentration. In a classroom with a large number of students, such attention simply isn’t an option. Powell (1996) examined independent schools in the United States and learned that private preparatory schools value both small school and small class size as necessary conditions for student success. In 1998, the average private school class size was 16.6 at the elementary level and 11.6 at the high school level. By contrast, the average class size was 18.6 in public elementary schools and 14.2 in public high schools’ (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999)”(Wasley, from Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time Is Now). http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb02/vol59/num05/Small-Classes,-Small-Schools@-The-Time-Is-Now.aspx

   “Babcock, P., & Betts, J.R. (2009). Reduced Class Distinctions: Effort, Ability, and The Education Production Function. Journal of Urban Economics, Vol. 65, pp. 314–322. ‘Empirical findings indicate that class-size expansion may reduce gains for low-effort students more than for high-effort students, Results here…suggest …that larger gains for disadvantaged students may have occurred because small classes allow teachers to incentivize disengaged students more effectively, or because students are better able connect to the school setting in small classes.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

   King, J. (2008). Bridging the Achievement Gap: Learning from three charter schools (part 1), (part 2), (part 3), (part 4). Columbia University (Doctoral Dissertation).  “School size and class size are linked to the five key cultural values ….: a culture that teaches effort yields success; a culture of high expectations; a disciplined culture; a culture built on relationships; and a culture of excellence in teaching. Small classes and small overall student loads allow teachers to spend more time working with individual students to help them track their own progress and develop their skills – thus reinforcing the principle that effort yields success. High expectations are easier to maintain when teachers know their students well (because of small school and class size), can identify whether a student’s poor performance on an assessment reflects deficiencies in their effort or their understanding, and can respond accordingly.” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

     Tienken, C.H., & Achilles, C.M. (2006). Making Class Size Work in the Middle Grades. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 3.1, pp 26-36. “In a NJ middle school, reducing class size led to a reduction in the failure rate from 3-6% to only 1%, despite a concurrent increase in 40-60 students, and a 7% increase in poverty students, without any additional spending. Gains in test scores were statistically significant with .80 effect size.”

NCTE: National Council of Teachers of English. (1990). Statement on Class Size and Teacher Workload: Secondary. “The Secondary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that schools, districts, and states adopt plans and implement activities resulting in class sizes of not more than 20 and a workload of not more than 80 for English language arts teachers by the year 2000.”

     Bernstein, K. J. (2000). Class size does matter. Prince George’s and Montgomery Journal Newspapers “Excellent essay by a high school teacher, explaining why both smaller classes and a smaller teaching load is essential to improve student achievement.”

   MetLife, Inc.. (2012). The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. A 2011 survey of teachers, parents and students. “Teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59% who were very satisfied to 44% who are very satisfied, the lowest level in over 20 years….Teachers with lower job satisfaction are more likely to report that in the last year they have seen increases in: average class size (70% vs. 53%)…One in seven (14%) students agrees that their classes are so big that their teachers don’t really know them….”

   I would like to point out that I did find a few, very few articles that stated they found no significant difference in achievement levels between large and small classes, but in these studies, a large class was defined as 25 students. I agree, 25 students is manageable. I do not have any classes as small as 25.

     Certainly, we all know schools are suffering with budgetary cuts and the money only goes so far, but cutting teachers is not the place to save money. Cut anything else first—anything. We are driving over-worked teachers out of education and under-reached students out of school. Although we would all love to create 21st century students with skills in the latest technology, the most important thing is learning critical thinking, critical reading, and effective communication. I can do that with a book, a pencil, and a piece of paper—and a reasonable number of students. But I don’t think we need to go that far. I want our students to have the latest technology and up-to-date text books.

I have a better plan. I think we should cut excess at the top first—before ever considering cutting the boots on the ground. We have someone in charge of everything, but not enough people to carry it out. School leaders should trust the professionals they hire to do the job without the micro-management of a highly paid director of this and director of that—people we never even actually see as teachers, but answer to indirectly. We spend money on publicity specialists hired to sell the fantasy that we offer the best education in our over-crowded classrooms (and I’m not attacking our district—we are one of the best, but I am criticizing the educational model in general). We buy expensive airtime on radio stations and on local television. Here’s a novel idea—let’s hire lots of good quality teachers, reduce class sizes so students get personal attention and help, and actually become the best district. Word of mouth boasting from parents and students who actually experience an excellent education will attract more students than an inflated and unsubstantiated claim of excellence on a TV advertisement ever will. And when they come, we do not let the classes become overgrown once again, but we hire more teachers. If we really mean to do what’s best for kids, smaller classes are essential.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2014

Helicopter Moms, Cowardly Superintendents, and Fed-Up Teachers by Christina Knowles

Helicopter-ParentingI’ve been complaining about government interference in education for years. But forget the government. There’s a new clueless interloper on the scene. She’s been around forever, but she’s just recently gained the power of a government agency. She is the overprotective, overinvolved mom. Let’s be clear. I believe parents have a say in their children’s education. I believe they should complain if a teacher is doing something wrong or treating their child unfairly. I am a parent, and I would not sit idly by if my child was receiving less than a quality education or was being mistreated. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am also not referring to the majority of parents who reasonably contact teachers and administrators with their concerns, discuss situations, and offer fair solutions or advice. I’m referring to parents who worship their children to the point that they unknowingly handicap them and effectively destroy any chance of them receiving useful skills or an education that will serve them their entire lives simply because they can’t bear to see their child struggle. We’ve all met them. They complain about every grade, write their children’s papers, excuse them when they want to stay home and play video games, demand testing as soon as their child says an assignment is too difficult, and blame the teacher when their child continues to fail all their subjects, or in some cases, merely don’t receive As. Unfortunately, some struggle is required for learning anything new. If a child never struggles in a class, they are not thinking, being challenged, or doing any of the work necessary to learn a new skill. They are merely doing what they already know how to do.

In the past teachers were trusted to institute their own guidelines, within reason, to suit their style, the children’s needs, and their subject matter. The same model does not work in every class. With the passing of new programs and laws such as No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core Standards, came a host of rules and regulations of how a teacher should teach and grade. Our classes are lumped into categories such as English, Science, Math, and History, among others, regardless of their specialty. Each of these categories has their own standards, which may or may not make sense in the specific class. All of these standards have the same weight, regardless of their real world importance, and a standard for turning things in on time or turning in things at all, does not exist, even though in the real world for which we are preparing students, no one cares what a person knows if they are unwilling to produce any action. However, in school, it no longer matters what a student does, only what they know, and it is the teacher’s sole responsibility to figure out what they do know if the student is unwilling to share that information.

Add to this the fact that teachers are the only ones held accountable for what the student learns, and we have some very overworked and frustrated teachers shaking their heads at the system. Obviously, there is no motivation for the student, and this also is seen as the fault of the teacher. Of course, scores drop and desperate administrators dealing with angry parents and threatening superintendents implement one experiment after another trying to stem the flood of apathy and poor test scores. No system sticks around long enough to get an accurate evaluation over a period of time because as soon as little Johnny complains that he doesn’t like it, our overprotective mom rushes to the superintendent to rescue him. For some reason beyond my comprehension, some superintendents and administrators cower in fear at the angry parent and immediately give in, ordering the teacher to make it easier on Johnny while threatening that the teacher had better not let Johnny’s test scores slip. If you aren’t one of these parents, maybe you’re thinking I’m exaggerating. I assure you, I am not.

Recently a situation like this happened on a grand scale affecting every teacher in my building. A couple of years ago, the teachers at the school where I work were forced to implement a modified form of Standards Based Grading. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a system where no points are accumulated and formative homework is not counted. Students are given letter grades on summative assessments that fall into the Common Core Standards. They are allowed to re-do these assessments, erasing earlier grades that were not passing, re-take every test, ignore deadlines on assignments (because we only care about what they know), and any poor grades would be replaced by newer grades as they learn. This made things much easier for students and much harder for teachers. Teachers now have to spend hours at home creating new tests for re-takes and re-grading tests, papers, and projects while also grading the new work that comes in. Most teachers thought that this was unreasonable and too easy for the students, so we implemented a few rules to make it more challenging and to create some incentive to do the work. We made some restrictions. For example, if a student has an F in one standard, he would not be able to receive higher than a C in that category. Each category is calculated together to receive the overall class grade. If a student failed an entire standard, he could not receive higher than a C in the class. Also, we made a rule that if a student took a test over and did worse, then they would receive the most recent grade.

But Johnny didn’t like that. Now it would be risky to keep taking the same tests over again without studying. In addition, Johnny didn’t like it when he had two Bs and two As and ended up with a B in the class even though the two As were in categories that hardly mattered, and the Bs were in important categories. Johnny thought he deserved an A because—well, just because. Johnny ran home and complained to his mom, and she was furious. She’d take care of that mean teacher trying to educate her son by actually holding him accountable for his work. So Johnny’s mom got a few parents together and went to the school board and superintendent. They demanded records from the overworked administrators and harassed the teachers. They circulated petitions and filed complaints. By the way, Johnny was already receiving free tutoring from the teacher after the teacher was supposed to be home with her family. The teacher was also providing notes for Johnny because Johnny has a hard time copying words off the board when he is playing games on his phone. Johnny also got to use the teacher’s notes on his tests because he has trouble remembering stuff for his modified tests. He only has to read half of his novel because he can’t concentrate on reading when he is almost to the next level of his video game. But anyway, I digress. Johnny’s mom chewed out the superintendent about the mean teachers at his school, and the superintendent asked her what she would like to happen. Johnny’s mom said she wanted all the grades to be rounded up, no restrictions about Fs hurting grades, and she wanted only Johnny’s highest grades to count on his test re-takes. She also demanded that her new rules should be retroactive, and the teachers should have to go back and change all the grades from the previous semester to fit the new rules if the student asked (the grades that were done exactly as the administration dictated before). The superintendent said, “Of course,” and ordered all the teachers to comply. He also made sure the teachers knew that their test scores had better not drop, or they would receive a poor evaluation. It’s too bad Johnny’s mom doesn’t demand a smaller class size, but she never mentions the fact that there are 45 students in his class because she voted against the measure that would have reduced it. She doesn’t want that school to get any more of her money than they already do. Besides, the superintendent says that class size doesn’t matter “if you’re a good enough teacher.”

True story. Johnny is not one boy but represents many. Johnny’s mom is not one parent but a vocal minority. I don’t blame the students. They are good kids, and I love them. It’s human nature for them to take advantage of the system they are caught in, and I applaud the ones who resist the urge, who do their best and work hard despite it—and they do exist, but even they often admit that they have lost motivation and a great deal of their work ethic in this system. This is why I hear from college professors more and more that the biggest problem with incoming college students in our area is no longer what they don’t know, but their expectation of being coddled. They expect to turn things in late for full credit, they expect to miss class with no repercussions on their grades, and expect to re-do assignments and tests. In short they are not prepared for college in ways beyond academic knowledge. Unfortunately for Johnny, his mom holds no sway with the college professor.

As the system continues to spiral out of control, quality, experienced teachers are being driven out of education faster than new ones can graduate. I fear that by the time my students have children in school, school will have become nothing more than a daycare center catering to their every whim and staffed by paraprofessionals making minimum wage. Quality teachers with advanced degrees will not linger forever in a field that devalues them, holds them to ridiculous evaluation standards that are wholly out of their control, and subjects them to taking orders and abuse from overprotective parents who know absolutely nothing about educating their children.

Something has to be done about this mentality of scapegoating the teacher, blaming her for the actions of everyone around her and ignoring the enormous sacrifice she daily makes to educate other people’s children. States and districts pile more and more meaningless busywork on the already stretched teacher while, at the same time, removing all responsibilities from the students. We ignore the fact that most teachers work between 60 and 70 hours per week while being paid for 40. We demand that they provide individual instruction in a class of 45 students, which by the way, is impossible, yet part of her yearly evaluation. We hold her responsible for someone else’s motivation level, while removing most methods of creating this motivation. We make her accountable for things completely out of her control like whether or not the student communicates with his parent about grades or the student taking the initiative to seek out learning opportunities on his own. Why are we so eager to take away all responsibility from our children and place it on the teacher? Does anyone really think that is good for kids? If so, I hope they are prepared to support their children well into their thirties. As for the rest of us, we need to give back to teachers their autonomy and control over that for which they are held accountable. It is not fair to demand results, and then tie their hands in achieving those results. The crisis in our education system has reached critical mass, and we, as teachers, will no longer passively accept the blame.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Photo from teenlife.com

Religious Persecution—in America? by Christina Knowles

Snagged from Media Matters for America
Snagged from Media Matters for America

If you are listening to Christian radio or Fox News lately, you may think religious persecution is running rampant in America right now. But is it really?

If you think you are being persecuted for your religious beliefs, ask yourselves these questions: Is anyone trying to stop you from praying, reading your holy book, or worshipping in your own home? In your place of worship? Is anyone trying to stop you from imposing your religious views on others publicly? If you can honestly answer yes to the first two, then perhaps, you are experiencing persecution. However, the latter is not persecution. It is you trying to persecute others, and is therefore, not protected under religious freedoms. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Here are some examples of actual religious persecution.

  • Jesus Christ’s crucifixion based on his religious claims and those of his followers.
  • John the Baptist’s beheading based on his belief in Christ as the messiah.
  • Constantine’s destruction of pagan and Roman temples and his intolerance of all non-Christian religious practices.
  • Mary Tudor’s slaughter of Protestants who refused to convert to Catholicism, which earned her the name of Bloody Mary.
  • Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews and the slaughter of 6 million Jews under his leadership.
  • Joseph Stalin, who was against all religion and demanded atheism be embraced by all. He killed thousands of people because of their religions, destroyed temples, and outlawed Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and more.
  • Charlemagne persecuted the Saxons, insisting they convert to Christianity.
  • Martin Luther was killed for his reformation of the Catholic church, but was also, himself, a controversial figure for the anti-Semitic sentiment in his writings.
  • On-going persecution of Christians in China, which includes, beatings, imprisonment, confiscation of religious materials, and executions.
  • In Africa, there is much Christian vs. Muslim persecution erupting in violence and death. For example, the recent Islamic terrorist attack at a Kenyan college, killing 147 Christians.
  • In the Middle East, Christians are persecuted by Muslims, Muslim groups persecute each other, and then there are the devastating effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which many believe is rooted in differences in religious ideology.
  • In America, today religious persecution may exist on a very small scale. Individuals are discriminated against in work environments or at school, but it is not widespread. Probably the most persecuted group in America today would be the Amish, who are frequently attacked when venturing out of their communities. But even these are isolated events.

Many people believe that Muslims are the most hated or persecuted religious group in America today because of the association of terrorism with Islam in the Middle East and because of the attack on September 11, 2001. But while the sentiment of many Americans may be anti-Muslim, actual persecution is also limited to isolated events.

Merely being discriminated against or even hated does not constitute religious persecution. Religious discrimination is against the law and people on the receiving end of discrimination in America have the opportunity for fair legal redress, which in itself, shows that this is probably not at the level of persecution.

Individual people will always discriminate and infringe on the rights of others, but when this is sanctioned by the state, no protections are in place, and no justice is available, then it can truly be called persecution. One might question if isolated incidents of hate crimes constitute actual persecution in the academic sense or just criminal activity by a prejudiced few, which will not go unpunished. If so, no one in America can claim to be persecuted on the basis of religion.

If your idea of religious persecution is that you are not able to infringe on the rights of others to practice your religion, then you are mistaken, and frankly, that’s just too bad.

In the news recently, there have been a variety of groups suing the government and petitioning for laws to protect religious freedom, when in fact, religious freedom already exists and is protected by the Constitution. If refusing to serve someone based on his religion appeals to you, then opening this can of worms is likely to backfire on you. Already, we’ve seen cases of signs appearing refusing to serve Christians on the grounds of “deeply-held religious beliefs.” All one has to do to see the inherent discrimination in these types of protections for businesses is to replace “Christians” or “homosexuals” with “blacks” or “Asians,” and we immediately become incensed with righteous indignation, saying, “They can’t do that! That’s illegal!” What’s the difference? Do you really believe that your religious freedom entitles you to discriminate against others in a public place by refusing to offer goods and services? No one is trying to prevent you from exercising your religious freedoms. But you cannot, in America, run a business open to the public, and then discriminate against people based on your religion or theirs. That sounds a lot like Nazi Germany. Saying you can’t do that with your business, does not mean, you are being persecuted.

Try being an atheist in a country where atheists are prevented from holding public office in seven states (West). Can you even imagine our country electing an openly atheist president, or imagine the ridicule a sitting president would incur if he refused to say a prayer at the Prayer Breakfast or at the National Day of Prayer? Yet, the very religious folk who are so vocal about religious freedom have no issue with religious tests for public office, using religion to campaign, or to freely criticize the lack of religion in candidates and politicians.

Unfortunately, the inability to “put the shoe on the other foot” is at the root of this ridiculous controversy over religious freedom. Instead of demanding your right to deny others rights, try to imagine what you would feel if that happened to you. I believe that most people do not want to hurt others or treat them unfairly, but when our sense of justice and our fear of losing our own rights cause us to treat others unfairly or unkindly, then we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what we are really trying to accomplish. Maybe by remembering what real persecution looks like, we can more realistically look at our own fears. Fear seems to be at the heart of this issue, and decisions made on the basis of fear are rarely rational or effective, and are often divisive. Really, can’t we all just get along?—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2015

Sources:

West, Ellis M. (2006). “Religious Tests of Office-Holding”. In Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. CRC Press. pp. 1314–5. ISBN 978-0-415-94342-0.

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