Sunday, April 21, 2013

When Violence Hits Home for Us

It's been another week of violence and destruction.  Some friends recently reminded me that in many parts of the world, this is the norm.  Bombs and destruction and a permanent sense of danger.  In fact, some people are annoyed or angry that we in the United States make so much out of these events when they happen to us, while we ignore them in other parts of the world.

This attitude bothers me.  It's true that such terrible things happen with horrific frequency in many places.  But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't react with shock when it happens in the United States.  And carrying the shock and anger and despair of violence with us all the time is no way to function in our lives.  What's wrong here is not that we react when such violence happens in the United States. What's wrong is that the sense of safety we carry with us is so comparatively rare in the world.  What's wrong is that violence is the norm anywhere.

If we don't react with shock when it happens here, we are saying it's normal, or it should be normal.  Normalizing violence is no way to fight violence.  Denying people the right to feel shock and sadness and despair in the face of violence and destruction is no way to preserve our sense of humanity and compassion in the world.  Human beings have the capacity to be horrible, and they have the capacity to be magnificent.  When we feel shock and sadness and horror, and even anger, at violence, we are living up to our best selves.  When we ignore violence, sensationalize it, turn it into entertainment, glamorize it, indulge in it, we are living up to our worst selves.  The fact of violence in one place does not make violence acceptable in other places.  The fact that the level of destruction in one instance of violence is so much greater than in another instance does not make the lesser destruction any more acceptable.

It is human nature to feel most acutely that which touches us most closely.  When our own parent dies, we feel it in a way that we never will when our friend's parent dies.  That doesn't make us selfish.  It's honest.  So, yes, when a bomb explodes in Boston, I feel it more acutely than when a bomb explodes in a place I've never visited.  That doesn't mean I don't care about what happens in other places.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wrath, Vengeance, and Smiting - Oh, My!

During my Easter hike this year, I wandered into the Old Testament prophets and was struck by the amount of anger, vengeance and violent feeling that was present in the Bible, especially in those sections.  It got me thinking about my recent post correlating different sections of the Bible to different phases of human existence.  So where do the "Lord, smite my enemies" sections fit?  Where do the "God is pissed at you for all your evildoing and he will wipe you from the earth" fit?  Where does this angry, vengeful God fit?  We like to pretend that sort of stuff isn't there in the Bible, that the folks whose spirituality finds its expression in wrath are fundamentally de facto wrong and misguided.  But it is there.  So, why?

God's anger is supposed to be righteous anger.  So, if something happens that seems to represent God's anger, some natural cataclysm or a defeat in battle, we then believe we can deem that event righteous.  We attack those we see as our enemies and if we are victorious, we claim that our cause was righteous, thereby justifying our own violence and anger.  Then we point to these many, many Biblical passages to further support our claims.

Perhaps all that bile is not there as a justification for anger and hatred and vengefulness.  The Bible is still brought to us through human instruments.  Perhaps those angry, vengeful passages are there simply to acknowledge the presence of such feelings in the fabric of human life.  To hold a mirror up.  When we see God that way, maybe we're trying to see him too much in our image.

Of course, that explanation flies in the face of those who claim the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the human instruments who recorded it didn't impact, filter or obstruct the divine messages it contained.  I don't take that view.

Like it or not, the Bible was written, compiled and translated by humans.  That's a lot of layers of flawed humanity between us and the divine.

Most of those passages are humans speaking on behalf of God, too.  The prophets are human beings telling others what God said.  The Psalms are human beings writing songs and poems to call upon God or thank God or comment on what they see as God's actions.  All of these passages read more like angry, vengeful, bitter humans pouring their pain into their own visions of God.

I can understand righteous anger, the anger I feel when I see what I believe is wrongdoing.  The problem is when humanity takes righteous anger as our due, it doesn't work.  Anti-abortion advocates believe their anger is righteous.  The religious zealots behind the World Trade Center attacks believed their violence was righteous.  Nearly every army who has ever fought a war and won has claimed God was on their side.  We humans just can't get it right.

Does this mean I've made God into some sort of wishy-washy warm-fuzzy universal energy?  Do I discount the true notion that God might get angry or vengeful?  No.  But I think we human beings have to be awfully careful not to assume we know what makes God angry, not to try to wreak vengeance on God's behalf, and not to believe that we ourselves have the right to engage in the kind of vengeful, righteous anger that would make us equal to God.  We are not God.  We can't see into another person's heart.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Atlanta Testing Scandal

As you may have heard, there is a massive scandal in the Atlanta public school system involving 58 schools and 178 educators, 35 of whom have been indicted for criminal activity.  It is a scandal about cheating on the state tests.  It is chilling and sobering.  The Superintendent has been indicted, among others.

As a teacher, about to begin the process of the state tests with my third graders, I can't help reflecting on the events in Atlanta.  Cheating is wrong.  No question.  However, I know the pressures we're under to raise test scores, to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals, and the constant criticisms leveled at our public schools.  I know the anxiety that builds in my gut as the state tests approach.  I know how crushing it is and how much I question my skills as a teacher, my worth as a teacher, whether I even deserve to be in the classroom, when my class does poorly.

During the past 2 years, after brutal rounds of budget cuts that left us with 10-14 fewer school days, class sizes of 35 and higher in the elementary grades, and less support staff, we were told the passing scores on the state tests had been increased.  My results were not good.  I worked hard all year to help my students learn what they needed to learn.  Then I had to watch as they struggled and failed.  And I had to pick up the pieces and encourage them after all of that.

I know what it's like to watch a struggling reader who has not qualified to take a modified version of the test, or a student who is still learning English, try their best to read a text that is way beyond them, try and try and wear themselves down, while I am forced to bear witness, and restricted in what I can say to them.  This year, the very words I can say to encourage them have been scripted for me.  As I watch a student struggle and drown, not because I have not taught them but simply because they are not there yet, it breaks my heart.  Then, while my heart is breaking, that drowning child raises their hand and tells me they don't understand what a word means.  One word.  The word "contain", for example, in the phrase "Which of these polygons does NOT contain a right angle?"  The child knows "polygon."  She knows "right angle."  But that word "contain" has stumped her.  Or the phrase "according to the passage" (a phrase I have learned to use with my third graders throughout the year because the people who write tests can't be bothered to use kid-friendly language).  That child turns to me with pleading eyes, asking for help from the adult whose job, all year, has been to provide support and scaffolding so she can learn.  And I must refuse her.  I must say "Just try your best and choose the answer you think makes the most sense."

Those of us who teach tend to be empathic people.  We tend to be helpers.  It is against our deepest nature to turn away from a child who is struggling and in pain.  But that is what we have to do during the state test.

I try to prepare my students for this reality.  When we take in-class tests, I try to create a similar environment.  I remind them that I cannot help them.  I remind them that the person who learns from the test is me, because I will learn where they still need help and  what they don't understand.  I remind them that a test is just a time to show what they know and what they need to learn.  I try to help them understand that they should do their best and take the test seriously, but they should not be anxious or worried or make too much of it.  Mixed messages?

I try to teach my students what they, as third graders, are expected to learn.  I try to help them overcome the gaps that result from poverty and language differences.  I try to give them skills to outwit the tricks of the test.

And then testing day arrives, and my role suddenly changes.  I warn them in advance that I'm required to read certain directions and that there are rules about what I can say and do during the test.  I tell them that it might seem like an alien teacher has invaded.  And then, I become a Test Administrator.  And I watch as the wheels fall off.  I watch as a student who struggles with attention begins to simply click on answers and whip through the test (In Oregon, we take the test on computer).  I can no longer tell him or her to slow down, take a break or take their time.  I watch as their video game muscle memories kick in and they click on answers the way they would click on moves in their favorite game, rushing to get to the next level, not stopping to think and problem-solve.  I bear silent witness, hands tied.

Eventually it ends.  Back in the safety of our classroom, away from the inviolate space of the testing room, I remind my students that, while I want them to do their best, the test is still nothing more than a test, one measure of their learning.  It does not measure who they are in their hearts, and that is what matters.

And then, in a staff meeting, we look at the data.  All I can see is how far I still have to go.  I find myself getting jealous and resentful of colleagues whose scores are better than mine.  Later, I sit alone in my classroom and wonder what I did wrong, what I could do better, where I failed, and I forget the very words I told my students.  I forget that I am not my test scores any more than they are.  I forget that it is just one measure of my worth as a teacher.

So as I read about the Atlanta scandal, I cannot help but pause.  Cheating is wrong.  I would never change my students answers or tell them which answer to choose.  But I'd be lying if I didn't understand, in some part of me, how so many educators found themselves going down such a wrong road.