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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

Month

April 2015

The War on Teachers by Christina Knowles

hands_bars_prison_jailBy now I’m sure everyone has heard that eleven Atlanta teachers have been convicted and sentenced on racketeering and other charges associated with conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests. This scandal shocked the nation and teachers, for different reasons. While the nation shook their heads in disgust at the dishonest actions of those entrusted with the education of their children, teachers nodded in understanding—I don’t mean to say that they condone their behavior in any way, but we certainly understand it.

If you haven’t heard, eleven teachers apparently changed the answers on student standardized tests and passed them off as student work. The failing school where they worked reveled in the jump in student achievement, and when they were caught, all the major news outlets attributed their motivation to bonuses and incentives—but immediately, I was skeptical. There is no way any teacher would risk losing her career, punishment by the law, her ethics, and waste years of education for accolades and a bonus.

It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, this was not likely the motivation. In her April 1, 2015 Answer Sheet blog, she attributed their actions to “pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed” (Strauss PG 1). This might sound ridiculous to anyone who is not a public school teacher, but every year incredible pressure to outscore the year before is placed on teachers who are threatened with losing their jobs or having their schools shut down based on these scores.

I know what you’re thinking—Why don’t they just focus on doing a better job teaching? For an American school teacher in today’s society, meeting the impossible and ever-growing demands of this thankless job is not even remotely possible. Meeting the minimum requirements of a public school teacher demands a 14-16 hour day, and in reality, teachers could work round the clock and never catch up with what “needs” to be done.

Most of a teacher’s day involves actually teaching in the classroom, then meeting one-on-one with students, contacting parents, attending meetings, and copying the material they stayed up till midnight the night before researching and writing. Every night and weekend consists of grading hundreds of papers, lesson-planning, reading and researching for future lessons, and contacting any parents that they ran out of time to contact during the day. Maybe, if there is any time left over (yeah, right), they will analyze data and make plans on how to reach individual students who are struggling. An American high school teacher today has between 150 to more than 200 students to reach individually.

Today’s students are not the students of yesteryear, further complicating the job of the teacher. Today’s students have had it drilled into them that everything is the teacher’s responsibility. If they are not learning, then the teacher needs to adjust the way he teaches. If it is hard, then the teacher needs to make it easier. If he is failing, then Mom and Dad need to set up a meeting with the administration and give the teacher more responsibilities, such as typing up notes, modifying tests, and creating lots of alternate assignments to make sure the child succeeds, even though these accommodations don’t result in anything except a meaningless diploma—and lower test scores. Today’s students are allowed to be disrespectful in class and disrupt the learning of those who are trying with very little, if any, consequences for their actions. The teacher has no power to enforce detentions or any other punishment, and with the implementation of Standards Based Grading, students receive no negative consequences for ignoring homework. Sure, they will fail the test for lack of practicing their skills, but they can just take an easier, modified version of it after they Google the answers. If a teacher won’t allow this, Mom will set up a meeting. Maybe she will even get that teacher fired. And this does not even take into account attempting to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty, violence, and apathy with which some students deal on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, with every new requirement, with every new impossible expectation, worn out, stressed teachers continue to try and meet every demand for two reasons: They actually care about the kids, and they spent years preparing and doing this job and don’t want to throw it all away and start a new career. If only I can make it to retirement and collect my meager PERA wages, they think, I can just substitute teach, because even though they love the kids and the content, they only have so much to give.

Combine this with a struggling economy, student loan debt, and medical care for their acquired stress-related illnesses, and demoralized, unappreciated, and harangued teachers just may be beaten down enough to compromise their ethics and cheat when threatened by demanding administrators and superintendents to deliver the scores or be fired.

According to Strauss, this was likely the case when Atlanta public school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who died shortly before the trial of the eleven teachers under her supervision, refused “to accept anything other than satisfying targets [that]created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (PG 2). Hall and her top administrators did not threaten job loss just once before the crime was committed. This atmosphere of fear and oppression continually built over a period of several years to the point that when the cheating began, it was encouraged through fear and reward. Teachers who blew the whistle were quickly fired, while teachers who cooperated were awarded with praise and bonuses, in effect, creating a hostile environment of coercive practices by those in charge (PG 2).

One of these eleven teachers avoided jail time by making a plea deal and giving up the right to appeal, another managed to receive weekends in jail, and the rest received up to seven years in prison (Calamur PG 1). It is unbelievable to me that they would receive any jail time! College students who cheat on tests don’t even fail a class anymore, but we are going to throw the book at a few emotionally broken-down teachers trying to keep their jobs?

Of course, Hall is not here to take the responsibility, although surely she bears more of the guilt than any of the teachers, but in my estimation, the true responsibility for this disaster of public education lies with the government. Every year there are new rules and responsibilities to contend with, new threats of losing funding, new batteries of endless tests, all which serve only to further corrupt and destroy the system of education for our children. Why are they not on trial? Why are they not held responsible for declining scores because they are the true cause. They started this wrecking ball rolling in the path of every public school in America, and teachers and students had better get out of the way because it doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping. Why should it, when teachers make such a convenient scapegoat?

So, yes, I understand why they did it. I get it. And I don’t think they deserve to spend one day in jail. In fact, I think they should sue their district and the government for creating such a hostile work environment and coercing them to cheat (I won’t even call it a crime because that is so ridiculous). These are not criminals. These are the used and abused teachers who loved our kids, who year after year, gave everything they had and more to help them succeed, and we said it wasn’t enough.

Although I work in an honest district where the strictest protocols for testing are followed, and no one even hints at altering tests, we still feel the ever-growing pressure from the state, and so do our students. The more tests we have to give, the more, understandably, the students rebel. During our last testing session, half of my students drew pictures instead of answering the questions or just held one letter of the keyboard down and filled the page with gibberish. They don’t care anymore. They want to be more than a test score. They want to do more than take tests. They want to get excited about something that inspires them to learn.

Luckily, I teach in a district with a wonderful principal who is supportive and understanding, yet even as this is the case, we, as teachers, feel the pressure. So, would I ever be tempted to change answers? Cheat on a standardized test? Fortunately, I am not even tempted. Not because it is such a detestable crime, not because there is no one telling me to, but because I just don’t care anymore. That’s what this system has done to me. Much like the students, I don’t care if they pass or fail a stupid state test. I do, however, care about them. I care that they learn to think and to communicate. I care that they find a passion and pursue it, something that will inspire them to passionately investigate.

So, that’s what I teach them, and if my kids fail the tests, then they can call me a bad teacher and fire me. So what? I am a teacher. A public school teacher is highly employable because they are skilled and intelligent and capable of working long hours in the worst conditions. We put up with abuse, disrespect, and blame while never letting it change our love for the students or how we interact with them. Anyone would be smart to hire a former teacher because we are highly educated, critical thinkers, creative, good communicators, great at thinking on our feet, and excellent multi-taskers. Go ahead and fire me for low test scores and bad evaluations based on impossible tasks. You’d be doing me a favor. The only thing that worries me is who will replace us? Who will they get to teach our precious children when they have driven the last of the good teachers out of the profession?

We can say these eleven teachers were bad, and we are lucky to be rid of them, but our system made them in to what they became, and then turned them into yet another knife to stab at the profession. But I won’t make them the scapegoat. It’s time to stop blaming teachers, or we won’t have any teachers to blame. –Christina Knowles

Sources

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Jail Terms Handed To Most Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal.” The two-way: BREAKING NEWS FROM NPR. NPR.org. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015

imgbuddy.com. Photo of jail hands. web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Strauss, Valerie. “How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests.” Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

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Daddy by Christina Knowles

Stone Today it has been two years since my father passed away. It feels funny even using the word father because he was a “daddy” in the truest sense of the word. Even my mom referred to him as Daddy. I’ve been wanting to write about him for some time, but where do I begin?

976359_10200842145130060_1501404558_o I could tell you he was a war hero. He served in World War II as a Marine in the South Pacific. He was a disabled veteran. He was proud of this fact. He was proud of America’s role in freeing the Jews from Nazi oppression and torture. He was proud of avenging the attack on Pearl Harbor and protecting America from invaders and defending freedom, in general. He was idealistic in his views of freedom for all, and I’ll always remember this about him, but this was not the main thing about him to me.Medals

To me, he was so much more than that. Again, where do I begin? He loved guns, boxing, and reading about war, which is so ironic because he was the most peaceful, gentle man I’ve ever known. He was loving, kind, peaceable, forgiving, accepting, friendly, engaging, and intelligent. He was a friend, a confidante, a sage giver of advice, a comedian, a protector, and a role model.

A lot of people are afraid of their dads—if not fear of punishment, then fear of disappointing them. I never was. My dad was not much of a disciplinarian, but we knew how he felt about things, particularly about being kind and honest. And it’s not that I didn’t care if he was disappointed in me, but he was so understanding that it was really hard to feel his disappointment. He expected us to make mistakes. I mean this in a good way. He just knew we were human. I did feel his pride, however, throughout my entire life.Young dad

I think what I respected most about him were his morals. My dad had high standards of morality for things that mattered. He believed in fairness, justice, but also kindness and mercy. He hated bullying, and he told us stories of standing up to adults, especially teachers, in defense of someone who was the target of unfairness or cruelty, particularly those who were weak or poor. He did not tolerate unkindness or cruelty in anyone, and I grew up with a strong sense of standing up for right even when the odds were against me. Rooting for the underdog is also something that I got from my dad.

531933_10200628139500053_493904080_n My dad was a family man. He devoted his life to being there for his wife and children. He enjoyed family life, and he liked to teach us things, do things with us, and just talk to us. He loved antiquing, and he would take anyone who would go with him, but he especially liked to go with my sister-in-law, Lisa, because she shared his love of wandering through antique shops. He was the best father-in-law anyone could ask for because he accepted every one into the family and loved them like they were his own.

Larry, Dave, and Dad            He really loved his children. He was so proud of my brother, Larry, for his natural intelligence and the way he could take anything apart and fix it. My dad encouraged each of us to pursue our passions, and he introduced Larry to one of his—ham radios. Larry was his firstborn, and he was so proud of him, his career, and his family.

904726_10200628143820161_1223600697_oWhen I was a teenager, my brother, Dave, moved to Colorado and stayed with us for a while. My dad loved this. He loved target shooting with my brothers, and when Dave was around, they did a lot of this. He and Dave were like best friends, doing everything together, including having a small moving business for a short time. They were so close that my dad was the best man at Dave’s wedding.

He loved teasing and joking with everyone, but especially my sister, Patricia. He’d get the biggest rise out of her, and thus, the most pleasure. Toward the end of his life, he came to depend on her the most as she and her husband, Bruce, were always there to pick up what he and my mom needed at the store or to do anything else they needed done, including taking them to appointments or visiting every day. He told me how much he loved and appreciated his sweet girl.625588_10200628139540054_1059301535_n-2

Dad and ConnieMy dad was super-proud of my sister, Connie too. He always talked about her with such admiration because she’s a scientist, and basically good at whatever she does. Connie was also always there for my mom and dad, seeing to their daily needs and just being company for them in their old age. My dad was not an educated man, but he was smart, and he respected that in my sister and admired all her accomplishments. He bragged about her to everyone he knew. She was his first little girl, and he loved to tell everyone how she grew up to be a brilliant scientist and worked at a university.

As for me, I probably put my parents through the most of any of their children, but my dad always acted like I was everything he wanted in a daughter. No matter what, he would always talk to me, tell me stories, discuss politics and social issues. Most teenagers don’t really like to talk to their parents that much, but I loved to talk to my dad, and his advice was always wise and realistic. I will always think of him as one of the wisest people I ever knew. I was the baby of the family, and I think to him, I was the baby, no matter how old I got.me and daddy

Daniel, Inky, and Dad My dad absolutely loved dogs, especially our family dog, Inky. He was so crazy about this dog that I don’t think he ever got over losing him. Even in his old age, he would reminisce and tell funny stories about his beloved friend and get a tear in his eye. He also told us stories about his childhood dog, Ol’ Blue. Blue was loyal till the end, and my dad was loyal to him, recounting his adventures for the next 70 years. I can see why my dad loved dogs so much. They share a lot in common. Dogs are noble creatures, loving, loyal, dependable, and congenial, just like him. I inherited the same love for dogs.

554891_10200628148580280_2100448453_n My dad loved kids, which explains why he was such a good father. Every time I saw him as an adult, he would ask me about my life and about my kids. He loved all his grandkids, and his grandkids always loved to play with him. He could always make them laugh so hard, especially when he would chase them through the house with his dentures half out of his mouth. He was always hilarious and joking around. At least when he wasn’t telling us stories.

He loved to talk about the war, but never the bad part. He never talked about death or killing. He talked about the way he and his platoon joked around and the fun they had. He’d tell us about the places he’d been, but not the horror he’d seen. But that’s what he always did. He focused on the good; he had fun, and so did everyone else who spent time with him.

The only time my dad would ever get really mad was when someone was picking on someone else. Like I said, he hated bullies. One of my fondest memories of him was when I was in the first grade. I had a really sadistic teacher, and she used to call me to the front to work out math problems on the board because she knew I didn’t understand them. We did not have a lot of money, and I was the only one in the class who brought my lunch in a brown paper bag. In fact, I reused the bag until it was soft and wrinkled and practically falling apart while my classmates had metal lunch boxes depicting the latest popular TV shows. Well, one day my teacher made fun of me in front of the whole class about my worn out lunch bag and its contents, which unlike my classmates, contained no pre-packaged Doritos or Twinkies, but modest homemade food. I denied it was mine, and when we were released for recess, I ran home and told my dad that we got out early. A short time later, the teacher called home and told my dad I’d left without permission. I told my dad how she made fun of me, and he was very angry at her. He told her that I would not be returning to school that afternoon because he was not going to subject me to her anymore that day. He made me my favorite lunch, and we sat side-by-side on the couch watching cartoons the rest of the afternoon.

That’s the kind of person he was in a nutshell. The kind of person who cared about people’s feelings, who stood up for those who’d fallen, who made everyone feel better, who made everyone know that they were special and valued, just for being themselves. I never knew a more kind and loving man.

547698_10200633338790032_1617648242_n-2 He loved my mother. And my mom was wild about him. My dad was a pretty laid-back kind of guy, but when anything was wrong with my mom, he worried. If my mom was sick, my dad could think of nothing else until she was well again. When my parents were old and living in a nursing home, my dad’s health would plummet every time my mom would have a health issue, just from concern.

He was a man of faith, a Christian, and he looked forward to being done with the pains of old age. He was ready to go long before my mom would let him. My brothers and sisters and I are convinced that he lived only because she needed him. He hung on for her—because she told him to. And when she finally gave him permission to go, he did, entrusting her to us for just a little while. My mom passed away in November of 2014.

So that’s who he was, and if you didn’t know him, thank you for reading all about him. You would’ve liked him, and most likely, he would have liked you, unless you are a bully, of course.

Funeral I got the best of who I am from him, and I am so grateful to have had the pleasure of being raised by him—my dad, Harold R. Pitman (August 7, 1925-April 17, 2013). I love you, Daddy.—Christina Knowles

Entropy by Christina Knowles

Melting_Snow“Entropy”

Shimmering snow, delicate and fine

Each intricate flake is one

Unique in its design

But just another drop of water in the burning sun

Forming into crystals

Its hardening has begun

Then melting, drips—it ripples

Just another drop of water in the burning sun

Flakes, so fragile

Their formations, valiantly they’ve won

Glittering, they dazzle

But last but a moment In the burning sun

Smoothly frozen once again

Now merging into one

Newly impenetrable until when

It’s just another drop of water in the burning sun

Change is constant, it is written

Transformation is never done

The end is always hidden

In a drop of water in the burning sun

When at last, a vapor, it surely will succumb

To the scorching of the burning sun—Christina Knowles (2015)

Photo from rochesterinsurance.com

“Seeds” by Christina Knowles

WatermelonSeeds

“Seeds”

I ate of watermelon sweet.

I barely chewed its pulp as it—

It slid along my throat so slick,

Like water sliding off a rock,

Its smoothness trickled down my neck.

I sucked its juice and tasted life—

A slice of pale red paradise.

Inhaling breaths between large bites,

I choked upon a little seed—

A small black spot—reality.

Christina Knowles (2000)

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

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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