Category Archiveeducation

Commentary & education 06 Mar 2014 05:46 pm

How politicians should talk about teachers*

Always use the word “disgruntled” or “bitter.”

Never talk about a teacher smiling, unless he or she has received an award, in which case you should note that the educator is exceptional and not typical of the profession.

Remind constituents that most teachers bolt for their cars at the end of the day. Don’t talk about the ones who show up long before sunrise or stay well after the final bell has rung.

Be sure to mention that teachers have three months off. Never say that they spend that time taking classes to make themselves better teachers and working a second — or third — job to make up the difference between their salaries and those of other professions requiring similar training.

It’s also best not to mention that the average teacher’s grading and lesson planning during the school year cancels out most of those three “vacation” months. Nobody wants to hear about that anyway.

In your speeches, be sure to talk about how most teachers are members of unions, and that unions exist solely to get more money for their members. Avoid any mention of how teachers’ unions fight for smaller class sizes to benefit children and for creative curriculums to combat the steady encroachment of standardized testing.

Similarly, remember that teaching is easy. Who couldn’t stand in front of a room five days a week, read aloud from a book, and hand out worksheets? What teachers in their right minds would spend time crafting a powerful lesson about human rights, or leading a class to discover the beauty of poetry, or working with students after school to master the intricacies of calculus?

Don’t hesitate to mention that technology has made teachers’ lives much easier: Calculating grades can be done with the push of a button. But the time teachers spend educating kids on how to use technology responsibly, or tracking down cyber bullies, or consoling students whose boyfriends or girlfriends have just broken up with them by text message … well, that just goes with the job.

Remember that teachers don’t work on snow days but instead hang around the house in their pajamas, playing on Facebook and watching movies at taxpayers’ expense. They certainly don’t spend any of that time reconfiguring lessons to ensure that learning targets are still met. Teachers might also be responsible for spreading water on roads in the middle of the night to ensure a day off, so of course it’s fair that they work extra in the summer to make up for any time they’ve missed.

Your list of typical educators should include teachers who spend most of the day in the lounge, eating free food from the cafeteria; teachers who belittle and embarrass students; and teachers who never, ever give a kid a break.

Absent from this list should be teachers who call home to check on students when they don’t show up to school; teachers who spend money out of their own pockets to buy lunch, clothing, and even Christmas and birthday gifts for students; and teachers who counsel and seek extra help for young people who write about cutting, killing or medicating themselves.

If you must reference teachers who have the nerve to say that socioeconomic factors impact student achievement, be sure to follow up with a quote from an expert — defined as somebody who graduated from any school in the last 70 years — who talks about how it’s a poor craftsman who blames the tools and how a superior teacher can, in just 45 minutes a day, overcome all barriers created by social and financial inequalities that have lasted for generations.

And never, ever, give credence to the belief that a student’s academic performance has anything to do with the emphasis his or her parents place on education. Because, remember, students won’t keep you in office. Parents will.

Biting the hand that votes is bad for business.

* This column owes its genesis and structure to Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 essay,”How to Write About Africa.” Google it.

@cschillig on Twitter

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun


If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 17 Oct 2013 07:02 am

Teacher, grade thyself

If your job is to create education acronyms, these are gold rush days.

Ohio alone has 49 pages of abbreviations for various federal, state and local education programs and organizations. They range from APE (Adaptive Physical Education) and CATS (Commodity Allocation and Tracking System) to STARS (System To Achieve Results for Students) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

One of the newest is OTES, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, which is designed, in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, to “provide educators with a richer and more detailed view of their performance, with a focus on specific strengths and opportunities for improvement.”

After a lot of hocus-pocus that includes observations, conferences and student test scores, OTES spits out one of four rankings for each teacher: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing or Ineffective. “Skilled” was formerly called “Proficient,” but the PTB — Powers That Be (see, I can make acronyms, too) — changed it because they’d already ruined the word through years of mind-numbing proficiency tests for Ohio students.

The consensus of most experts — i.e., people who make a lot more than I do for doing a lot less — is that it will be virtually impossible for any teacher to be ranked Accomplished. Rumor has it that Jesus, Socrates, Anne Sullivan and Maria Montessori would all be no better than Skilled under OTES, and Socrates might only score Developing because he habitually answered a question with another question.

I can only guess at the rationale: to give teachers something to strive for, a shining star at the end of the educational firmament. (Like Little Ralphie’s teacher in “A Christmas Story,” marking an essay A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus …)

It strikes me as supremely stupid to tell professionals that no matter how hard they work, they will never reach the top rung of the ladder. Imagine how motivation would drop if I told my students at the beginning of the year that, no matter how much they studied and how well they performed, the best grade I would ever give is a B.

Nonetheless, this is the system that I and other teachers around the state will soon operate under, so we’d best get used to it. To gird my loins, I started rating myself using the OTES rubric for various non-educational tasks. Here are the results:

HUSBAND: Chris is fairly conscientious in his duties. He is kind and solicitous 95 percent of the time, but he does occasionally forget anniversaries and birthdays, and he once left his dirty socks on the couch when his mother-in-law came to visit. SKILLED.

FATHER: Works multiple jobs to help defray cost of higher education. Has moved a futon from garage to various dorm rooms and apartments and back again 15X. However, he once told daughter that she “sucked” at soccer. DEVELOPING.

PET OWNER: Dog and cats generally appear clean and well-groomed. Water dishes are filled to within 80 percent of capacity. Nevertheless, dog once peed on neighbor’s grass, resulting in angry tirade from neighbor and threat of legal action. INEFFECTIVE.

HOMEOWNER: Yard is frequently mowed and snow is usually removed from walkways (weather-dependent). However, fence in back yard desperately needs repairing, front shrubs need trimming, and attic windows are peeling. DEVELOPING.

CAR OWNER: Gas tanks are constantly in the bottom percentile for filling. “Check Engine” lights sometimes stay on for weeks, if not months. Back seat of ‘02 Neon covered with dog hair (see pet-owner grade above); windshield not washed since Halloween 2006. INEFFECTIVE.

COLUMNIST: Submits work on time; has not missed deadline in 12 years. Frequently exaggerates in the name of humor, but is seldom actually funny. Angers people on all sides of issues and never apologizes. Still doesn’t know difference between “lie” and “lay.” DEVELOPING.

Overall, this exercise has helped me to better pigeonhole my unique talents. Regardless, I can’t help but consider the OTES rubric as just another example of Stuff Higher-ups Introduce for Teachers.

And we all know the acronym for that.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Oct. 17, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 10 Oct 2013 04:54 pm

Introverts, unite

One-third to one-half of our society is introverted, says Susan Cain.

Cain, a self-professed introvert, stepped out of her comfort zone last year to deliver a TED Talks speech on the power of solitude. She noted that America today is designed for extroverts. Our offices and schools reward the outspoken “people-person” more than the self-reflective soul.

“Nowadays, our typical classroom has pods of desks — four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other,” Cain says in her speech. “And kids are working on countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members.”

She just described my classroom. At the beginning of this school year, I broke from tradition and placed desks in groups of four to inspire the kinds of conversations that are all the rage in educational circles and to become more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage.”

For the most part, I’ve been happy with the results, although students are chattier at inopportune times, as is to be expected when they face one another. Just last week, after reading an article about the power of collaboration, I instituted two minutes of “talk time” before each day’s journal writing. That, too, seems to work.

What I hadn’t considered is that my new floor plan and emphasis on collaboration puts introverted students at a disadvantage. Now I must rethink an environment friendly both to those who thrive on interaction and stimulation and those who thrive on solitude.

It’s an odd place for me to be, philosophically. Most of my life, I have considered myself introverted, more comfortable at home among books than out in public, awkwardly holding up my end of a conversation. It’s only in later adult life that I’ve become more of an “ambivert,” at home in both realms.

I credit the change with life experience. For 10 years I worked in outside sales, which forced me from the cocooning comfort of my car and into businesses, where I had to make presentations and be persuasive if I expected to make any money. (An April article in Forbes cites research indicating that ambivert salespeople sell 24 and 32 percent more than introverts and extroverts, respectively, so there you go.)

My teaching career also has helped. While I am always more at home creating lesson plans than delivering them, I find joy from a fresh crop of students each year, knowing I can recycle shopworn puns with impunity for a new audience. (Why is the book blushing? Because it’s been read.)

Of course, writing is perfect ambivert training, as well. I write in seclusion, with only my dog to keep me company, but those private thoughts are published for an audience whose reactions range from indifference to annoyance.

Cain’s point is that we marginalize introversion at society’s peril. The greatest advances and insights in fields as diverse as religion and technology come from people who separate themselves from the herd to have breakthroughs that they then bring back to the rest of us to nurture, develop, implement or — if nothing else — appreciate.

Her talk, which I highly recommend (search “Susan Cain” and “The Power of Introverts” online) is a reminder that we need not always follow demagogues whose powers of persuasion are superior to the value of their ideas. The 20th century “Cult of Personality” (of which the band Living Colour once sang) must give way to a world where both introverts and extroverts can comfortably contribute and be valued.

At the very least, it means those student desks must go back into rows, at least part of the time.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 10, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 26 Sep 2013 11:20 pm

Tied up, tied down

Staff and students at Alliance High School show off their bow ties.

Staff and students at Alliance High School show off their bow ties.

I’m always open to new ideas that improve my quality of life and make me look silly in the process.

That is why I’m proud to throw my support behind Bow Tie Thursdays, which — like Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19) and Eat an Apple Day (Sept. 21) — is exactly what the name implies: a chance to wear bow ties proudly and loudly.

The idea kicked off locally with Andrew Wolfgang, one of my teaching colleagues at Alliance High School. Despite the fact that he teaches math and participates in crazy Ironman competitions where he cycles, swims and runs distances that the human body was not meant to endure (any distance longer than a trip from the couch to the refrigerator and back during commercial breaks is too long), Andrew is a nice guy. So when he started wearing alternative neckwear on Thursdays, I decided to join him.

Except that first week I wasn’t able to find any legitimate bow ties in the fine retail establishments in and around Alliance. Whenever I asked, employees would take me to the Halloween section, where paper bow ties with little ghosts were nestled between 75-pound bags of Dum Dums and life-sized, glow-in-the-dark skeletons.

(”These aren’t the bow ties you’re looking for,” said my id, who looks remarkably like Obi Wan Kenobi. “These aren’t the bow ties I’m looking for,” responded my ego, dressed in a stormtrooper’s uniform.)

So that first week, only Andrew was tying one on — bow tie wise, that is.

I resorted to ordering online from Amazon, a company that now charges me sales tax on most purchases, meaning I can no longer pretend I’m sticking it to the man when I shop there. Regardless, I picked up some bow ties for around $8 each, which is about $7 more than I expected to pay, having been price-conditioned in numerous Halloween aisles.

On the second week of Wolfgang’s experiment, he and I were the only two in bow ties, but word got around. Today, a handful of staff and students has promised to come so attired, and the definition has expanded to include hair bows, giving ladies an opportunity to express themselves. (One staffer has promised bow-tie pasta. Given the sloppy way I eat, I could end up wearing that, too.)

During my exhaustive research for this column, which consisted of Googling “bow ties,” I learned that Canadians actually began this movement in Calgary a few years back. At the aptly named, founders note that their mission is to wear the geeky-but-lovable ties only on the first Thursday of each month. They also say their goal is to join together for breakfast or lunch in bow ties and drink scotch.

Our local effort will probably eschew the scotch. At least for now.

Bow ties have many advantages:

1. When you’re running up steps, a bow tie doesn’t flip all around like a traditional tie, possibly clouding your field of vision and resulting in a potentially dangerous stumble.

2. When you’re using power equipment or industrial machinery, the chances of your bow tie getting stuck in the gears and pulling you toward some ghastly accident are much smaller than with a traditional tie.

3. Bow ties make you look smart.

Those who remember some of my earlier bandwagoning attempts — Septembeard, which I cultivated last year but did not repeat this year, and vegetarianism, which I’m still practicing, at least until midnight on Jan. 1 — may wonder how long this fad will last.

Suffice it to say that I’ve bought three bow ties online, so I’m good through Oct. 3 at least.

Any readers would like to join in Bow Tie Thursdays are welcome to participate. If you’re so inclined, take a photo of yourself in a bow tie and send it to my email address below. The helpful gnomes at The Review can load all bow tie photos onto our Web page to show off the variety of styles available in the area.

Plus, then I won’t be the only person to look silly.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Sept. 26, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 19 Sep 2013 05:12 pm

Hardly pornography

Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar is at it again.

Earlier this year, Terhar was criticized for drawing a comparison between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler on her Facebook page. She apologized, recognizing that as a public figure, her words must be “measured and tempered.”

Lesson not learned, apparently. Last week, Terhar made headlines again, saying that Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is “pornographic.”

For those unfamiliar with the book, “The Bluest Eye” is a novel about young Pecola Breedlove, who is bullied because of her skin color, nappy hair and brown eyes. More than anything, she wants to be blond-haired and blue-eyed.

In a harrowing passage, Pecola is raped by her father. Morrison describes the violation in detail, using common, coarse language. It is a difficult scene to read, but one that is vital to understanding the mind-set of both abusers and their victims.

“I don’t want my grandchildren reading (the novel), and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it,” Terhar was quoted as saying at a board meeting last week. “The Bluest Eye” is listed in an appendix to the state’s new Common Core Standards as a title read in the 11th or 12th grade. The appendix includes a non-graphic excerpt.

Terhar questioned whether anybody actually reads the books suggested in the Common Core appendix. Unintentionally, she echoes a question that teachers have been asking since the Common Core’s adoption, which is whether anybody involved in drafting this new curriculum actually reads, period. But that’s an issue for another day and column.

What I find most lamentable in Terhar’s remark is the implication that if a book isn’t appropriate for her grandchildren, then it isn’t appropriate for anybody’s grandchildren. That’s a common fallacy committed by people who would censor literature and art — a belief that their standards are the yardstick by which to measure everybody else’s.

She must also have a low opinion of teachers, not believing that they, working in conjunction with students, parents and administrators, can tackle challenging works in the classroom in a way that responsibly fosters the type of critical-thinking skills about real-world issues so vital to student success. That’s a sad vote of no confidence from somebody in Terhar’s position.

Thankfully, organizations such as the American Library Association crusade tirelessly to education the public about the importance of freely circulating ideas and words. Each year, the organization sponsors Banned Books Week (this year, Sept. 22-28), a celebration of our rights as Americans to read books on a variety of topics and themes. This includes teen readers, who have every right to read “The Bluest Eye” and decide for themselves if the book has merit.

Morrison’s novel is 15th on the ALA’s list of books most frequently banned or challenged from 2000-2009. This means that people other than Terhar have tried to impose their opinions about it on the American reading public.

In the wake of the school board president’s remarks, Christine Link, Ohio executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has spoken out on the novel’s behalf, noting a shameful history in this country of suppressing literature by and about black Americans on the basis of content and controversy.

Even Morrison herself stepped into the fray. The Nobel Prize-winning author sad that it was especially troubling to have to defend the book in her native Ohio.

And Terhar now finds herself doing a familiar dance — the back step. She has clarified that her comments — like her Obama/Nazi references — do not reflect the beliefs of the Ohio School Board, but are her own opinions. She meant no disparagement toward Morrison, although when you imply that somebody is a pornographer, it’s hard to see how that can be taken as anything other than a criticism.

Most importantly, she has pledged whole-hearted allegiance to the Common Core Curriculum, even though she questions the literary tastes of the people who assembled it and would like “The Bluest Eye” removed from its documentation, another fascinating paradox.

Maybe if this whole state school board president gig doesn’t work out for Terhar, she’ll step down and gain an opportunity to catch up on some reading. I’d recommend she start with “The Bluest Eye.”

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Sept. 19, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 29 Aug 2013 10:34 pm

Fixing what’s ‘wrong’ in education

It’s a cardinal rule of sales: Create the problem, and then provide the solution.

Ohio education officials did a good job of creating the problem last week when they released newly revamped report card data for state schools. The new district report cards jettison descriptors such as “continuous improvement” and “effective” and replace them with an A-F grading system in nine categories. Seven of the nine are based on high-stakes testing results. The other two are based on graduation rates.

Not a single category involves any qualitative measure of districts. The new report cards do not look at how many students are involved in music and art, how many participate in extracurriculars, or how many stay after school for tutoring. Officials rate schools without talking to a single student, parent, teacher or administrator. Supposedly objective, quantitative numbers rule all.

Even schools that fared well under the old (flawed) system find themselves struggling in some parts under the new (still flawed) system. Districts earned A’s in some categories and F’s in others, but no overall grade is forthcoming until 2015. Officials haven’t even decided exactly how they’ll compile overall grades, but like the bureaucrats at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they give every assurance that they have top people working on it.

Meanwhile, parents and community members who are accustomed to report card formats can make their own judgments on districts with D’s or F’s in, say, “standards met” and “four-year graduation rate” and A’s and B’s in “disabled value added” and “annual measurable objectives.” Likely, they will just assign traditional number values to each letter grade, add them and divide by nine, even though the state says that’s not how it will be done in two years.

Like the good salesmen they are, state officials haven’t yet shared the solution, but are instead happy to let districts, kids and parents stew in the problem for a bit. When it arrives, the miracle cure will likely involve sanctions and penalties for persistently poor performing schools (even if these punishments go by more euphemistic and progressive names) and a continued reliance on charter schools that follow a for-profit model.

That’s hardly a surprise. As a teacher, I used to scoff at colleagues who said the accountability movement was a plot to systematically dismantle public schools and open the doors for mega-rich handlers of politicians to plunge their greedy fingers into the educational pie. Now, those conspiracy theorists sound more like prophets.

The bottom line is this: Whether old report card or new report card, Ohio’s results are based on the erroneous assumption that the only useful data is testing data, and that the accountability model is the only way to “police” education in America.

P.L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., presents a better alternative on his blog, “The Becoming Radical.” He argues that students and the public would be better served if politicians target growing economic inequalities in the United States. The widening gap between rich and poor means that more students come to school hungry and without adequate health care. These issues directly affect their classroom performance.

Further, Thomas argues that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing should be stopped, replaced by “a small and robust measurement system” that tests random samples of students and gathers descriptive (qualitative) information about districts.

He also believes that experienced teachers must be assigned to impoverished and special needs students just as they are to affluent, typically developing students; that teacher education should become more rigorous; and that current grading systems, like the A-F model that is so prevalent in our schools, should be replaced instead with models that provide rich, individualized feedback.

Significantly, Thomas says that the kind of crisis management model so prevalent in state and federal education mandates must be replaced with patience. Patience, however, isn’t part of the paradigm where lawmakers and their rich puppetmasters are concerned, so the accountability model isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There’s gold in them thar halls, and millions to be made for testing companies who sell products that create the problem and charter school charlatans who sell the solutions.

I love my students and I love my school, but increasingly, I fear for both.

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Aug. 29, 2013.

Food & education 08 Aug 2013 04:04 pm

Financial planning under the golden arches

McDonald’s is under a lot of scrutiny lately for a financial planning site it created with Visa to teach employees how to manage money.

The company’s so-called Practical Money Skills Budget Journal came to the public’s attention at about the same time that fast-food workers across the industry started to pressure employers to raise hourly rates to $15 and allow them to unionize.

Famously lampooned last month on the Colbert Report, a so-called sample budget on the site allots only $20 a month for health insurance, even though McDonald’s least expensive health plan is $12.58 a week for employees who have been with the company more than a year. Initially, the budget made no allowance for heat, although the website was later revised to include $50 a month for this.

Of course, all employers should pay a living wage, especially a company like McDonald’s that, according to Bloomberg, achieved 135-percent profit growth from 2007-2011 and paid CEO Donald Thompson a truly obscene $8.75 million last year alone.

But here’s the problem: Even if McDonald’s increased wages to $15 an hour — and let’s be clear, the company has given no indication that it’s even considering this — it wouldn’t be enough. At that higher rate, a worker would make $31,200 a year before taxes (which is a very big “before”) and about $23,400 after.

This is far better than minimum wage, of course, and workable for households of one. But for families of two or more people, unless they are incredibly frugal or both have full-time jobs, $15 an hour is not a living wage.

Maybe it was sufficient 20 years ago, and it still sounds like a princely sum, but the reality is that $15 an hour sounds like a ticket to easy street only to people making less.

Those who make less, and a lot of Americans do, basically have three options: Learn to live within very modest means; find a second — and possibly third — source of income; or take steps to ensure their minimum-wage reliance is only temporary.

McDonald’s worksheet proves that the first option is hardly workable (unless your idea of wealth is pocketing $2 a day after paying all bills).

The second option, finding additional sources of income, drew audible gasps from the Colbert audience, though I’m not sure why. Working a second job is an honorable way to make ends meet, although admittedly difficult for single parents, workers with physically exhausting jobs, and employees whose shifts change from week to week — like many McDonald’s workers.

The best option is probably Door No. 3, doing everything possible to get into a better-paying position, through additional education and/or advancement within a company. Again, easier said than done, especially in this economy.

The sad truth is that wealth in this country is unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few movers and shakers, the much-ballyhooed 1 percent, who take home 24 percent of the nation’s income. Compare that to 1976, when the top 1 percent made only 9 percent of the country’s income, and it’s apparent that this seesawing of available money is depleting the middle class, with more of us falling into poverty each year.

How can a man like Donald Thompson feel no guilt for making $8.75 million annually while so many of his employees rely on subsidies financed by U.S. taxpayers to make ends meet? Because he looked after his employees with a facile budgetary guide that advises them to carpool and use public transportation instead of driving solo?

I don’t mean to pick on McDonald’s here. Its situation is hardly unique. Across America, a small cadre of the super rich hold the rest of us hostage. And whenever somebody even suggests the redistribution of wealth, the GOP starts waving copies of “Atlas Shrugged” and screaming “socialism,” before trotting out some chart-wielding PR maven who will explain that, exorbitant as CEO salaries may appear, lowering them won’t really fix the problem, and anyway, who would want all an exec’s responsibility for a piddling $350,000 a year? Don’tcha know these guys are busy creating jobs?

How nice it would be if the mega-rich would limit themselves to salaries that were merely, oh, 20-30 times greater than that of their average employee’s salary, instead of the ridiculous 380-times-bigger paychecks that many take home. But that’s as laughable as believing that the NSA isn’t really spying on Americans.

So I cheer on fast-food workers in their quixotic quest to increase wages. Even though they’re barking up the wrong tree, I can’t really think of a better one. The people in all the gated tree houses, after all, are too high up to even hear them.

Originally published Aug. 8, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 09 May 2013 09:03 pm

Teachers’ impact tolls throughout our lives

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m doing exactly that — remembering educators who enlightened and inspired me.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the late Melva Jean Watson, second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, who read aloud from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Studies prove the benefits of reading to children, and I benefited both from the content of those books and the time spent listening to a capable reader weave words into a literary web.

Reading aloud was a big part of Judy Vien’s classroom circa 1980 at Marlington Middle School. One book in particular cast a potent spell: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” read by Mrs. Vien in her soft Southern accent, so similar to how I imagined Scout, Atticus, Jem and Dill would sound.

I respected her for sharing a book that some find controversial, especially for sixth-grade students, and for not sugarcoating the expletives. Instead, she explained the racial overtones of the times; that mistreating people because of skin color, education or economic attainment is wrong; and that we were mature enough to know that saying certain words was not the same as endorsing them.

A few years later, Andrea Ogline and Nancy Schwan — my freshman and sophomore English teachers, respectively, at Marlington High School — encouraged my love of writing, each in her own way.

Mrs. Ogline, poor thing, waded through page after page of my journal entries, filled with dreary imitations of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and gallons of imaginary blood. Yet she was always enthusiastic in her comments, even when she would have preferred a nice Bronte pastiche to another psychopathic killer inspired by my fetish for horror films.

Mrs. Schwan submitted one of my stories to a regional contest. It didn’t win, but for the first time I thought about making a living with words and saw how revision improved my writing. She took the work so seriously that she once called me at home to address a plot flaw, just like a real editor. I am thankful for that, and how she never assumed that because my character committed suicide, the story was a cry for help. (It wasn’t.)

At Mount Union College, David Ragosin and John Bienz left their marks. The former introduced me to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” one of a handful of books I regularly return to for inspiration, and he once told me I had the makings of a good college professor. My career didn’t go in that direction, but the words did — and do — mean a lot.

Dr. Bienz had such a quiet and unprepossessing manner that he put students, many of whom were secretly terrified of literature at the collegiate level, at ease. While he delivered effective lectures, he was a master of eliciting responses, both in class and on the printed page. I especially remember his Shakespeare class, where instead of a final paper, we performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for elementary students. I was the fairy Puck, likely because of my long hair and effeminate build. (Both are victims of my forties.)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I flattered the heck out of Dr. Bienz my first few years as a teacher, modeling my delivery on his. These days, I’ve found my own voice, but am still largely influenced by his technique.

Like most people, I am the sum total of the efforts of dozens of professionals, from Ms. Meese, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the Letter People, through Penny Arnold, an Ashland University professor who made me re-examine my grading methods as a practicing educator.

Even teachers whose subjects aren’t of great interest or whose styles are not inspirational make an impression. When they are passionate about their subjects, it leaves a mark. When they are not, that too speaks volumes.

If our lives are books, teachers occupy a large chunk of the acknowledgments, along with the standard tagline that while they provide a wealth of insight and information, we ourselves are responsible for any errors in fact.

“I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of the same name. This is especially true of teachers, whose impact lasts far beyond the final school bell and, indeed, tolls throughout our lives.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 9, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

education 28 Mar 2013 05:56 am

A new way to evaluate schools

I work in a persistently poor performing school building.

At least that’s what the state indicated earlier this month when it unveiled new, “more rigorous” criteria for determining success and failure in Ohio’s public schools. My district was previously in “continuous improvement,” but this new ranking system means that even some schools previously rated “excellent” suddenly plummeted — based not on new information, but on a reevaluation of old information.

That’s crazy.

I’ve never been a fan of the way the state judges schools and issues report cards. It’s insulting, demeaning, and — most importantly — inaccurate. Designations are based overwhelmingly on test scores, and test scores, while important, do not tell the whole story.

So far this year, students in my classes have written and published three books. They’ve read and analyzed dozens of short stories, essays, poems and novels. They’ve interviewed senior citizens and written papers about the results. They’ve debated issues of equality and gender using nonfiction essays as a starting point.

Just next door, students have walked a simulated Oregon Trail to experience life as pioneers in the 1800s. Down the hall, they’ve participated in track-and-field events and measured the results to see real-life applications of science and math. One floor down, they’re learning to weld, work on automobiles and rehabilitate injured legs.

Students in my school routinely earn full-ride scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities, excel in athletics, create artwork for the walls of our local library, sing and act in professional-quality plays, produce daily news programs for television, create phenomenal meals, volunteer for local service groups, collect literally thousands of cans of food to help the less fortunate and enrich their community in dozens of ways.

Teachers in my school include first-rate graphic artists, home economists, mathematicians, journalists, valedictorians, researchers, and career educators — all sharing a goal to give kids what they need to succeed in a competitive world.

And we are nothing special.

Across the state, in almost every school and district, students and teachers are doing similar activities, excelling in similar ways, and achieving similar results. But the state takes none of this qualitative information into account when it measures our schools.

I’m not suggesting public education is perfect. Of course it isn’t. Teachers get tired, burned out, used up. Some public schools desperately need to be fixed. Some may even need to be closed, but not nearly as many as you might think based on the list of “persistently poor performing” buildings.

My wife works in a nursing home. When the state inspects her building each year, four or five evaluators from Columbus arrive, unannounced, for a weeklong assessment. A dietitian looks at the quality of the food, safety personnel look at the physical building, nurses pore over records and charts. Employees are interviewed. Patients are interviewed. When it’s over, the company receives citations for its mistakes, a window of time to fix them, and a later evaluation to determine that corrections have been made.

But in education, faceless bureaucrats in Columbus pull graduation rates, attendance numbers, and — most importantly — test scores, stack them against a pre-made yardstick and issue a determination. Nobody bothers to look at the school, talk one-on-one to people who work and learn there, or watch a single class.

Why can’t the plan that works for nursing homes work for schools? Why can’t teams of teachers and administrators, trained to look for the good and the bad, walk in some morning, observe classes, evaluate lesson plans, talk to students, parents, teachers and administrators, and make an overall assessment based on both qualitative and quantitative data? People and numbers, not just numbers and numbers.

Is it because this method is too expensive? Or is it because such first-person evaluations might reveal a different reality than the one politicians sell to the public, one that allows their rich, opportunistic friends to establish a foothold in public education and exploit it? Might such evaluations show that many educational disparities are caused by income disparities, a problem made worse by a widening gulf between rich and poor?

I used to believe this was the stuff of paranoia, but that was before I watched billionaires open their wallets and make huge donations with strings attached (I’m talking to you, Bill Gates), running — and ruining — education like a business to further their own ends while sending their own kids to ritzy academies exempt from such ridiculous mandates.

Public education still works. Don’t let the latest contrived reports tell you otherwise. Do what our lawmakers can’t or won’t — come to our persistently poor performing school and see for yourself.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published March 28, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Next Page »