By Ryan Tibbens
Public school teachers will attend tens of millions of hours of division-prescribed professional development this year. Almost none of it will help teachers learn more about ‘what’ to teach and ‘why’ to teach it. Nearly all of it will focus on ‘how’ to teach. That is ridiculous.
First, let’s acknowledge the power of pedagogy and honing one’s craft. Teachers should be constantly learning and sharing methods, increasing their arsenal of strategies to engage and affect an increasingly distracted and diverse student body. Teachers must also work purposefully to learn about new technologies and how to implement them (or not) in order to build “21st Century Skills.” Professional development must always include a consistent and sincere focus on pedagogy.
However, ‘how’ to teach is useless if the teacher does not know ‘what’ to teach or ‘why’ to teach some topics in depth, others in brief, and others not at all. Because teachers have traditionally been regarded as gatekeepers of knowledge, and because the first requisite qualification for work is a college degree in the discipline, many people falsely assume that teachers already know enough about their content. That is patently untrue.
Before we even worry about content-specific knowledge, let’s consider teachers’ general academic aptitudes. On average, teachers scored below average on the SAT when they were in high school. 54% of elementary teaching candidates fail the Praxis I test on their first try. Most data indicate that teachers have an average IQ of, well, around average. Praxis II (content-specific test) data is harder to come by, but even basic score ranges indicate great variation and suspicious pass rates. I’ve heard more teachers make the “Cs get degrees” joke than I care to count.
I’m not arguing that teachers are stupid. Most teachers are smart, hardworking, and functional in the classroom. Approximately 10% of teachers earned SAT scores in the top 20% (still a striking underrepresentation though). I’m simply arguing that teachers, on average, are average (particularly in lower grade levels). And we can all probably agree that, on average, we don’t remember too much detail from our own public schooling. But that’s what college is for, right? Uh-oh. Check out what the National Council on Teacher Quality found in a survey of elementary teacher preparation programs:
The teacher does not need to be the most intelligent person in the room based on IQ, but the teacher does need to be the most knowledgeable, the most aware, and the most (justifiably) confident. I remember being in classes when there was no doubt that the teacher was in the bottom half based on IQ and only somewhere around the top quarter based on content knowledge – it was the worst part of school for me.
So what do we do? Let’s get real. Let’s stop pretending that pedagogy and technology are the only things that teachers need to be trained on. If we’re going to sit through dozens of hours of mandatory professional development each year, is it crazy for a couple days to address content knowledge? Public school leaders always talk about creating “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers,” but how is that a likely outcome when teachers don’t learn more about their content? How can we promote interdisciplinary connections and PBL if we don't learn more about the other subjects their students study? If you don’t know stuff, you can’t think stuff; and if you can’t think stuff, then you can't do much. Let’s empower our teachers.
Pedagogy is great. Technology is fine. But if we spend all our time worrying about “how” to teach without supporting “what” and “why,” then we’ve done our teachers, our taxpayers, and, most importantly, our students a great disservice. Bring back content-based professional development to inspire teachers’ curiosity, passion, and overall performance.
by Ryan Tibbens
I love to read and learn, but I don't have much free time.
Optimistically, I have a 45-minute one-way commute. I have a lovely wife and two children under the age of three. I teach high school English. I run a small private tutoring operation. I keep a large garden, a cat, and two dogs.
My reading life consists of "How to Keep [something] Alive" articles, current events, students' essays, children's books, and street signs. When I'm lucky, I find time to read a Facebook argument or a handful of Twitter posts. When I'm super lucky, I get to read an honest exposition as I'm falling asleep in bed.
In the summer of 2017, I subscribed to Audible in hopes of stimulating my brain and improving the quality of my 90-115 minutes in the car each day. It worked. Below, you will find a running list of my Audible listens. They are listed (mostly) in the order I finished them. Short reviews are provided; some works deserve their own short articles, which when ready, will be linked.
If you intend to purchase one of these texts via Amazon, please click the links here -- you pay nothing extra, but your purchase supports Read.Think.Write.Speak. We receive a small percentage even if you buy a different format (hardback/softback/Audible/Kindle/etc.) than the one linked. Finally, we highly recommend the Audible audiobook service. By clicking the links above and signing up, you receive a free one-month subscription, including two full books and two Audible originals, all of which you keep even if you cancel at the end of your trial. PLEASE use the links!
106) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz -- ............ -- In Progress
105) Born a Crime by Trevor Noah -- ............. -- A
104) The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt -- ............... -- A+
103) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond -- ................................ -- B+
102) The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Goodwin Woodson -- ............................... -- B-
101) Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie -- .............................. -- B
100) Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents -- ...................... -- A
99) Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin -- .................... -- A+
98) Animal Liberation by Peter Singer -- ...................... -- A
97) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Watatsuki Houston -- .................. -- B-
96) No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald -- .......................... -- A
95) A Mind of Her Own by Paula McClain -- Historical fiction about Marie Curie.... -- B
94) Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover -- ................................. -- A+
93) Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell -- ........................ -- A
92) Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald -- ............................. -- A
91) Napoleon Hill's Outwitting the Devil: The Secret to Freedom and Success by Napoleon Hill (and Sharon Lechter) -- ........................... -- C+
90) I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara -- I'm not much of a 'true crime' fan, so I didn't expect much from this book. However, it was highly recommended by several friends and fellow teachers; it was also written by the wife of comedian, actor, and Broad Run High School graduate Patton Oswalt shortly before her death. I gave it a shot, and I'm glad I did. My only real complaint about the book is that it is incomplete -- it presents a portions of the book, plus draft material, plus excerpts from other articles and essays, plus some material written or heavily edited by McNamara's friends and research team -- all because she died before it was complete. If we excuse this unavoidable flaw, the book is excellent. The writing is crisp and engaging, and the story itself is unbelievable. McNamara dives deep into one of the worst, and least known, serial killers and rapists in American history; she tells it all in a way that is both suspenseful and informative. I only wish she could have lived, both for her family and to see her obsession come to fruition. Even if you don't normally love true crime books, this is worth your time and attention. -- A-
89) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum -- If you have ever attended or worked in a school (or anywhere else) with diverse racial and ethnic demographics, then the title should grab your attention. It grabbed mine. While the book does contain some excellent research and perspectives, it rarely offers anything truly new or unique. This book might function well as assigned reading in a college course, but adults who choose this text will likely already be familiar with many of the concepts and issues addressed. Personally, I felt like the book was at least twice as long as it should have been, and the new prologue goes on forever without making any clear connections to the purpose of the rest of the book (aside from general discussion of race in society). If you haven't read much about race and racism through anthropological, sociological, and psychological lenses, then this will be an informative, if somewhat boring, read. If you already have some reading and knowledge on the subject, then this might not be fulfilling. -- C+
88) Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Book 1 of original 007 series) -- I'm a long-time lover of Bond films, but I had never read any of the books, so when 'Casino Royale' went on sale, I jumped at the chance. Just like the movie, the gambling scenes go on (perhaps) a bit too long, but the writing is good, surprisingly good. Fleming's attention to detail both build suspense and create realism. Despite loving the movies, I really didn't expect much from the book and was pleasantly surprised. I now hope to read more of the series in the future. -- A
87) Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote -- Full confession: the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's is my all-time favorite "chick flick," though its use of a male protagonist might technically remove it from that genre. I've read that Capote disliked the film and thought Audrey Hepburn was the wrong actress for the part, which seems insane to anyone who has seen the film. However, now that I've read the book, I understand his concerns. The book is a bit more realistic than the film, less flighty, less whimsical, and even a bit dark at times. Holly Golightly is still charming and spontaneous, but there seems to be more vanity, more selfishness and shallow behavior; well, maybe not more, but the negatives are certainly more obvious and bothersome in the book. Despite the differences, I liked the book quite a bit, and its short length and character-driven story make it a good pleasure-read at the beach or on a rainy day. I might still like the movie better, but the book is excellent as well, for slightly different reasons. -- A-
86) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling -- ........................... -- A+
85) Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl -- ........................... -- A
84) The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- ........................... -- A+
83) Lying by Sam Harris -- ........................... -- B
82) How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About... by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A
81) I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong -- ........................... -- A+
80) Free Will by Sam Harris -- ........................... -- A-
79) Candide by Voltaire -- ........................... -- A-
78) The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump (listened several months ago and accidentally missed it lower on this list) -- ........................... -- B+
77) Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama -- ........................... -- A
76) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance -- ........................... -- A+
75) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell -- ........................... -- B+
74) Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts by Annie Duke -- ........................... -- B+
73) The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein -- ........................... -- A-
72) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell -- ........................... -- A
71) Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut -- ........................... -- A+
70) The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin -- ........................... -- C-
69) Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl -- ........................... -- A
68) On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau -- ........................... -- A
67) Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom -- ........................... -- A
66) Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo -- ........................... -- C
65) Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon -- ........................... -- A
64) The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers -- ........................... -- B+
63) The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde -- ........................... -- A+
62) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger -- ........................... -- A
61) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder -- ........................... -- B+
60) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll -- ........................... -- B+
59) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl -- ........................... -- A-
58) Anthem by Ayn Rand -- ........................... -- C+
57) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway -- ........................... -- A+
56) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle -- ........................... -- B+
55) The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch That Changed My Life by Rick Ankiel -- ........................... -- B+
54) The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A+
53) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander -- ........................... -- A+
52) Bill Bryson's Appliance of Science by Bill Bryson -- ........................... -- B+
51) The Circle by Dave Eggers -- ........................... -- A-
50) You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking... by Jesse Mecham -- ........................... -- B
49) What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman & Ralph Leighton -- ........................... -- C+
48) Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell -- ........................... -- C+
47) Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin -- ........................... -- A
46) The Art of War by Sun Tzu -- ........................... -- C+
45) TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson -- ........................... -- A
44) A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore -- ........................... -- C+
43) Apocrypha Now by Mark Russell & Shannon Wheeler -- ........................... -- A-
42) The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A
41) The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels -- ........................... -- B
40) The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad -- ........................... -- B+
39) King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild -- ........................... -- A
38) God Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell & Shannon Wheeler -- ........................... -- A+
37) Widow Basquiat: A Memoir by Jennifer Clement -- ........................... -- A
36) Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari -- ........................... -- A-
35) The Stranger by Albert Camus -- ........................... -- A-
34) The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert -- ........................... -- A
33) The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli -- ........................... -- C
32) The World According to Mr. Rogers by Fred Rogers -- ........................... -- A-
31) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari -- ........................... -- A+
30) Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Sam Torode -- ........................... -- B+
29) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston -- ........................... -- B-
28) Money Management Skills by The Great Courses, Michael Finke -- ........................... -- B+
27) In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A+
26) Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell -- ........................... -- A
25) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi -- ........................... -- A-
24) Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande -- ........................... -- A
23) The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch -- ........................... -- A-
22) The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff -- ........................... -- A
21) I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition) by Malala Yousafzai & Patricia McCormick -- ........................... -- A
20) What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel -- ........................... -- B-
19) Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers -- ........................... -- B+
18) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley -- ........................... -- B+
17) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin -- ........................... -- B
16) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius -- ........................... -- A+
15) On Power by Robert A. Caro -- ........................... -- C+
14) Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk -- ........................... -- B-
13) 1984 by George Orwell -- ........................... -- A
12) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey -- ................... -- A
11) Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel -- .............. -- A+
10) The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Human Cooperation by Matt Ridley -- This book serves as some kind of extension or re-telling of the development of morality within human evolutionary psychology as told by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal (below). As a fair disclosure, I loved The Moral Animal, and I've read several other books by Matt Ridley. The Moral Animal is more literary somehow, perhaps due to the use of Charles Darwin's letters and life as a case study of human morality. Still, some reviewers were not as positive about Wright's work as me. Enter Matt Ridley. What this book lacks in literary stylings, it makes up for in thorough research and more clear explanations of the modes of evolutionary psychology. If you have a sincere interest in the subject, I recommend reading both books. If you prefer the literary, go with Wright. If you prefer a more direct expository approach, go with Ridley. I recommend this book -- A.
9) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -- This is one of the greatest war novels (and anti-war novels) of all time. Taking the perspective of a young German soldier in World War I, Remarque shows war for what it is -- sad and scary and confusing and terrible. Hemingway and a slew of other authors changed how the world thought of war after WWI, but perhaps none did it better than Remarque. Hemingway said, "They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." Remarque breathes life into that same concept. Teachers might pair this with Johnny Got His Gun, Born On The Fourth Of July, The Things They Carried, War, or Tribe (and a dozen others). Highly recommend -- A+.
8) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk -- Probably the crowning achievement of Palahniuk's ever-expanding catalog, Fight Club offers immense insight into a spiritual erosion that has become so common in modern society that we often don't even notice it. Consumer culture, discomfort with masculinity, and finding meaning all share the stage. The movie is fantastic, one of my all-time favorites, and this book deserves the same respect (plus, with some dialogue changes and a different ending). I highly recommend -- A+.
7) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut -- Vonnegut's best-known work, this modern classic is equal parts science fiction and anti-war novel. The writing is crisp and direct, the morals are generally good, and the innovative plot structure deserves analysis and respect. That being said, this was my third or fourth time reading the book, and for some reason, I think I like it less with each additional reading. So it goes. This book is great, and if you've never read it, you should. Strongly recommended -- A-.
6) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley -- While it may not be the most entertaining read, this book is an argument for progress and a defense of it. An antidote to the usual doom-and-gloom that dominates academia and major media news outlets, Ridley's central thesis is that quality of life is, and has been, improving for nearly everyone on the planet for decades. One of his many sub-claims is that our progress is largely the result of capitalism, which will make the book more controversial to some, particularly political liberals and progressives. However, Ridley is very much in agreement with mainstream history, most economists, and accepted scientific theory, so while we might ~feel~ like we disagree with him, it is difficult to do so while thinking clearly. Even if you prefer the doom-and-gloom caution so common elsewhere, The Rational Optimist is a book deserving of your attention to provide balance and critical thought in otherwise dogmatically pessimistic conversations. I highly recommend. A-.
5) The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac -- A couple of my friends from high school LOVE this book and have recommended it to me since we were around 16. I read On The Road at least four times between high school and college, so I can't fully explain my hesitance about The Dharma Bums. The book does start slowly with far too much (fictional) name dropping and introduction, but once the characters make it to the mountains, the story and message become more clear. It's not On The Road, but it is quite good and in some ways might be more thoughtful. I recommend it -- B.
4) The Martian by Andy Weir -- I'm not a huge science fiction fan, but this is a very good book and a GREAT audiobook. Something about the writing style and the reader's style came together to bring this book to life. The movie is quite good too, and if I was reading the book (as opposed to listening), I'd say they're even in value; however, the audiobook does something special. I strongly, strongly recommend the audiobook to anyone who likes science, science fiction, adventure, or character-driven dramas. Excellent. A+.
3) The Evolution of God by Robert Wright -- One part history, one part theology, one part psycho-analytic criticism of traditional western religious texts, this book offers a crash course in religious teachings, Middle Eastern and Roman history, and cultural evolution. When I cross-checked some passages with my favorite priest, he agreed with ~nearly~ everything and even suggested that most of it was 'old news,' at least to him and those with similar educations. I doubt most Jews, Christians, and Muslims would see it that way. If you have an interest in religion, history, and/or cultural evolution, I highly recommend. If not, then I still think it's worth checking out, but maybe borrow it from the library and wade in cautiously. A-.
2) The Road by Cormac McCarthy -- This harrowing tale of a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic world is both beautiful and terrifying. I'm glad I waited to read it until after having children; my inability to stop thinking about my son during particular passages made the book one of my more intense literary experiences. And if you have seen the movie, promptly forget it and check out the book -- much, much better. A modern classic, I highly recommend it -- A+.
1) The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright -- An intriguing look at human evolutionary psychology and the evolution of morality, this book is both well written and well researched; it also provides an intimate, basic biography of Charles Darwin. For those with curiosity about, but limited background knowledge of, evolutionary psychology, this is a great place to begin. Highly recommended -- A.
By Ryan Tibbens
Before proceeding, please read this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which they detail JMU’s X-Labs class, a new project-based, experience-based, experimental design in which students work collaboratively and creatively. At least read the first half. Okay, fine, here’s the essential concept for you bums: "Tackling big problems is the point of JMU X-Labs, a four-year-old experiment in undergraduate education. Through a blend of interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based learning, and unscripted, open-ended research, each course takes students through the long and often aggravating process of developing new ways of thinking about complex problems. They might design drones to help with environmental problems, tackle foreign-policy challenges, build autonomous vehicles, or develop medical innovations to help with the opioid crisis. If everything goes well, students will produce a prototype of a product, plan, or service in 15 weeks." [Link]
If that sounds interesting, check out the article and JMU X-Labs’ website. If that sounds ridiculous, it might be even more important for you to check out the article because the education pendulum is swinging fast, and project-based and/or interdisciplinary learning (hopefully) is coming next. Whether you want to ride or dodge the pendulum, you should know more about interdisciplinary learning than your school’s mandatory training is providing, including what is happening at the college level.
I find myself in an interesting position because of my age and role as former student and current teacher. See, before No Child Left Behind was implemented, there was already a growing call for some standardization or assessment to merit a high school diploma. I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 2001, which means I completed a “Senior Project” as my standard assessment to earn a diploma. Of course, the PSSAs (statewide standardized tests) were introduced soon thereafter, and the project-based graduation requirement went by the wayside. As a student, I neither loved nor hated the Senior Project. I complained about it with all my peers because it was new and because the previous graduating class didn’t have to do it and because none of my teachers seemed too interested. But in process, the work wasn’t bad because I picked something I liked, and I made my own plans, timeline, and goals. The only real requirements were that the project must take a minimum of 100 hours to complete (between freshman and the beginning of senior years), it must yield demonstrations of learning in three or more subject areas (I think), and it must culminate in a 15+ minute formal presentation to school shareholders (teachers, parents, administrators, and community members) with a Q&A at the end. Now, as states try to reduce the number of standardized tests students take (particularly in non-Common Core states like Virginia), “Senior Projects,” internships, and performance-based assessments are all the rage.
While many teachers, students, and researchers will argue that a shift away from the intense, nearly-constant testing of the last two decades is good overall, few seem clear on what should be next. This is usually a discussion about assessment – not learning. Most states and school divisions have no serious plans to abolish the traditional subject areas, to reduce the number of required courses in each subject, or to give students more choice or opportunities to specialize. Public schools (and their governing bodies) seem content to continue the status quo in terms of curriculum and course offerings (after all, they’re noncontroversial, safe, and easy to schedule). Instead of offering real choice, as learners might experience in college or the job market, schools are now promoting more “student voice and choice,” more station work, more targeting of learning styles, and ubiquitous differentiation within each separate subject. And that is insane.
This kind of planning is time intensive and complicated, reducing a teacher’s ability to work one-on-one with students, reducing relationship-building, reducing any potential “authentic” experiences by keeping them divided by subjects, reducing the efficiency of planning and grading. Sure, a project in my English class might include content from history or math, but the students will receive no credit for it in those classes because not all my students are in the same maths or at the same levels or with the same teachers. Instead, they’ll surely be assigned yet another project or learning-style-station activity in that class, further burdening them with time-consuming projects that won’t cross over to other subjects.
Enter true interdisciplinary learning. Rather than have teachers in each subject area pretend to provide choice (I’m serving up one entrée, but you can pick your sauce), why not give students a real opportunity to choose their classes? Why not give them the chance to enroll in a class that exists solely for the purpose of activating their brains through self-selected, interdisciplinary, project-based learning? More and more universities are creating interdisciplinary, project-based courses; more and more companies are looking for young employees with these experiences. These experiences lead to a wide variety of personal and academic growth, and because everything occurs in one class, it is no harder to schedule than anything else. How can we make it happen? While the final goal might be for all school work to take this form, we have to start somewhere. First, offer the interdisciplinary class; then, to make sure students actually enroll, adjust the number of required courses in each subject area, or allow the new class to substitute and earn a credit in whatever subject area the student chooses. Rather than push for more choice inside each strict, narrow subject area, we must give students real choice (while giving teachers expectations they can manage AND giving administrators courses they can facilitate).
“Student voice and choice” within mandatory classes in separate, traditional subject areas is fake, phony, fraudulent. If we really care about student engagement, creativity, and higher order thinking, we need to create a class solely based upon the principles of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based problem-solving. And once we do, I want to teach it.
Extra: For additional commentary on the problems with education dogma, including learning styles, check out ClassCast Podcast Ep.016: Learning Styles < Relationships.
Pictures courtesy of JMUXLabs.org.
Introduction and Review by Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom of the review.)
Simply put, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most important books written in American history. Widely regarded as the best American slave narrative, it was written by Frederick Douglass at the age of 27, just a few years after gaining his freedom. Like most slave narratives, it includes testimonials and introductions by prominent white abolitionists to lend ethos to the author, but upon reading, modern audiences can scarcely imagine that Douglass needed a boost in credibility. His narrative structure is sound, imagery is vivid, diction is impeccable. His appeals to human decency and justice are cries we can't unhear. An early review in William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper proclaimed, “It will leave a mark upon this age which the busy finger of time will deepen at every touch. It will generate a public sentiment in this nation, in the presence of which our pro-slavery laws and constitutions shall be like chaff in the presence of fire. It contains the spark which will kindle up the smouldering [sic] embers of freedom in a million souls, and light up our whole continent with the flames of liberty."
Frequently cited as an inspiration by civil rights champions and politicians, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass also functions well in modern English and social studies classrooms. Its historical significance and status as a trusted primary source are impressive, but Douglass's style and advanced, sometimes intimidating, vocabulary provide students opportunities to study rhetoric, syntax, diction, style, and more. Douglass's writings have been cited on the Advanced Placement English Language & Composition exam no fewer than three times and offer an opportunity to become more comfortable with older non-fiction, which is traditionally the most challenging multiple choice reading passage on that exam.
For use in my AP English Language & Composition classes, students focus on (and annotate) the author's rhetoric and style, and they give special attention to content related to education and personal freedom. Douglass's exquisite writing makes the first task easy; his candor eases the second as well. In Chapter VI, Douglass writes that his master once said if he was taught to read, "'there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.' These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both."
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is fully deserving of a 5/5 rating. And weighing in at less than 100 pages, even the busiest student can make time to read and annotate it well in just a couple weeks.
For book order purposes, I recommend the Dover Thrift edition because it is accurate, complete, and cheap. The print and margins are somewhat small, so annotations can sometimes be tricky for students who write too much or have large handwriting, but the monetary trade-off usually makes it worthwhile. The other $5-7 versions available on Amazon.com are of varying quality, many having printing errors, binding problems, small margins, or missing prefaces/introductions. Therefore, I personally recommend the cheaper Dover Thrift (which I use) or the Penguin Classic edition, which includes other Douglass writings and speeches. The full text is widely available online, free of charge, but few students have ever submitted quality annotations in an Ebook or from a .pdf. Proceed with caution. Still, it is an option. The book is also available at most major book stores. If you have questions about obtaining a copy, let us know.
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By Ryan Tibbens
Disclaimer -- This article took over a month to right, not for lack of ideas or research, but for lack of a conclusion. This ClassCast segment -- in which Jessica Berg and Ryan Tibbens discuss the US Soccer pay gap, women's sports, and more -- helps to explain the delay and some of the nuances (hopefully) addressed in this article: https://youtu.be/rf0xd68U0RI. Consider this ClassCast clip a companion to the essay below.
Let's get this out of the way: I support the US Women's National Soccer team and their fight for better compensation. If I had to guess, you probably do too. There are already TENS OF THOUSANDS of articles on that subject (really, just Google "US Women's Soccer Pay"), many of which, particularly in light of the women's 4th World Cup Championship, are overwhelmingly in favor of the women's pay demands. However, this is not one of those essays. Everyone on the planet has beaten me to it, including Uncle Snoop.
Besides, the concern about pay (Why is there a pay difference between male and female athletes who play the same sports?) isn't even the most interesting question. Most writers and pundits ask about pay, then dive into the nuances of wage scales, advertising revenues, attendance figures, winning percentages, civil rights, common decency, and the rest. They're right. Researched, reasoned argument is the only way to understand the basic question and make a fair decision. Unfortunately, their results are often misleading or incomplete because those people did not address the full dilemma. The most interesting question in this US Soccer situation is about structure: Why do we maintain separate men's and women's teams in the first place?
Your answer to this question becomes the foundation for your argument about equitable pay.
1) This essay focuses upon asking questions more than answering them. The ultimate goal is to arrive at an ethical, just answer that can be applied across similar disciplines. I'm certain other people will offer better answers than I can.
2) I am an upper-middle class, white, male teacher who played multiple sports and coached co-ed and girls' sports.
3) I have a daughter and a son, both of whom I hope compete in athletics some day. They deserve access to the same opportunities and experiences.
This is my problem: Questions beget questions. I can't begin to ask, and certainly can't answer, the question about sexual division of sports if I don't first understand the purpose of sport.
Remember that sport is, by definition, competition intended for recreation and/or entertainment. In an evolutionary sense, participation in athletics provides people opportunities to prove their physical and genetic fitness, but they are luxuries -- few people waste time on games when their next meal or shelter are uncertain. Plus, sports are fun. Most are fun to play recreationally AND fun to play more seriously, when practice and process become essential. In fact, most people play sports, or at least started playing, because they love the games; they are fun. This is no trivial matter. US Courts have repeatedly ruled on issues of equal access for people of various demographics and abilities in the arena of sport.
In Justice, philosophy professor Michael Sandel breaks down a sports controversy (the PGA and Casey Martin's request for a cart due to disability) by starting with the purpose of sport. Even though the Court sided with Martin, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented with words that ring on in every sports equity argument because he actually considered the purpose of sport.
Sandel writes, "Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed. In a spirited dissent, he rejected the notion that the Court could determine the essential nature of golf. His point was not simply that judges lack the authority or competence to decide the question. He challenged the Aristotelian premise underlying the Court’s opinion—that it is possible to reason about the telos, or essential nature of a game:
Sandel continues, "Since the rules of golf 'are (as in all games) entirely arbitrary,' Scalia wrote, there is no basis for critically assessing the rules laid down by the PGA. If the fans don’t like them, 'they can withdraw their patronage.' But no one can say that this or that rule is irrelevant to the skills that golf is meant to test."
If we understand that sport is, fundamentally, about recreation and entertainment, our thinking becomes more clear. Recreation implies that the participants are having fun, perhaps even playing in their spare time. Entertainment implies that the spectators are having fun. When it comes to large venues and televised games, entertainment can't be argued. And while some athletes play purely for money, most acknowledge that love for the game lives on. Through this lens, it seems that we have the problem backward -- the men are overpaid rather than the women underpaid. If this is simply for recreation, for "sport," then we can reasonably assume that most of the athletes would still participate, even if paid less. Considering the US Women's National Soccer team's roster, participation, success, AND pay complaints, we already have proof that skilled people will play the game for less. So maybe the men should make less?
For some, that solves the problem: we end the pay gap by reducing the men's pay. Most people don't love that, though. They want equality up, not down. They might point out that US Soccer, Nike, FIFA, and a few dozen other companies profit off these athletes' labor and images. They say that the athletes deserve a cut. This isn't just about fun. And that seems reasonable too. Big man Dr. Shaquille O'Neal (great basketball player, big personality, and savvy businessman who now holds a doctorate in education) understood the conflict between money and purity of the game early in his career when he joked: "I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok." After several successful seasons in the NBA, Shaq went back and finished his bachelors degree (and later his doctorate); at graduation, he told the crowd, "Now I can go and get a real job."
Unfortunately, we've reverted to the pay argument without resolving the root question. And that is dangerous because, based on viewership and financials, the women might be arguing from a position of weakness. Based purely on global viewership and profitability, women's soccer (even among great teams) is undeniably losing to men's. Even when raw numbers are meant to show women's soccer to be more lucrative, they don't take into account how many extra games women played to generate the advertising and attendance revenue. Regardless of data interpretation, none of these questions, about pay and sponsorship and the rest, can reasonably be solved if we don't first answer why the sexes are separated in sport.
I was blindsided by this question a couple of months ago. At that time, I wrote a short article about Castor Semenya and her fight with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I ended that article by saying, "More [...] coming soon." But I never followed up because shortly after writing the article, two issues changed by thinking and my questions. I haven't forgotten the follow-up; I just haven't figured it out yet.
Here's why. First, Castor Semenya is intersex. To my knowledge, none of the major news or sports outlets covering the CAS/IAAF included details about Semenya's biology in their initial reporting. Based on those incomplete reports, masses of people (and I) were outraged that a woman with natural gifts would be handicapped or excluded, but that wasn't exactly the situation. While she demonstrates external characteristics of a female human, Semenya is 46XY, meaning that chromosomally, she is male. Her testosterone levels are in the typical male range and well above the normal female range. Also, many 46XY women have testes, often internal in place of ovaries, which boosts testosterone levels. The CAS's ruling about testosterone levels and participation do not apply to chromosomally normal women because no 'normal' woman has ever achieved a testosterone level high enough to break their threshold without significant performance-enhancing drugs. So Semenya has a choice: take a birth control pill (or comparable medicine) to lower her testosterone and compete as a woman, enter men's races, or race at events not regulated by CAS/IAAF. Suddenly the issue of "handicapping" a natural talent doesn't seem to fit the situation. And if the organization's ruling seems unfair, then perhaps it is because male and female athletes shouldn't be separated anyway.
That's the second reason I never revisited or concluded my Semenya piece: I ran into the question about sexual division of sports. It's not that the concept had never crossed my mind before. I've coached coed varsity golf teams as well as girl's JV softball and recreation events. But when responding to a friend's post about the Semenya decision, a well-meaning SJW challenged my position by questioning the sexual divisions. It soon became obvious that this man had never played nor coached competitive athletics and knew little about sport. I was ready to write off his concerns. But with only a little reflection, I realized that he had a point -- if we believe in the equality of the sexes, then why separate them at all?
Something I now try to teach in my rhetoric and argument classes is about premises and why to reject them. Too often we get tangled up in arguments that don't feel right, that don't allow us to fully answer or to explain the nuances of our answers. That is often because we've accepted someone else's premise. The argument about equal pay is built upon many, many assumptions, including that men and women should be paid equal wages for equal work and that sports should be segregated by sex. But I'm not sure either of those are fair here, and probably for the same reason.
Men and women are different. On average, men are taller, stronger, and faster; they have more lean skeletal muscle, denser bones, and more aggressive behaviors. If we accept those differences, then the sexual division of athletics makes sense. And perhaps we should. At the youth, high school, and even collegiate levels, participants often learn a variety of personal and life skills while building fitness, confidence, and friendships. If men and women competed together, it is likely that few young women would make varsity teams. Consider that "Just in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie's 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys. (Yes, that’s the right number of zeros.) The same is true of Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26. Just in the single year 2017, men and boys around the world outperformed her more than 15,000 times." But what about in professional sports? As professionals, participants should be elite, the best of the best. If the men are that much better, faster, stronger, why do we maintain women's leagues and tournaments?
US Women's Soccer star Megan Rapinoe said, “I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada yada," adding, “We — all players, every player at this World Cup — put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.” But if we reject the premise that women should play separate from men, we have to ask -- is that true? Was it the most incredible show? Could someone play better? Again, I don't mean to be an ass -- I support the women's cause and believe they deserve a raise. But is equal pay really fair?
Another premise worthy of examination is that of collective bargaining. The men bargained hard for individual bonuses; they took greater risks in exchange for more aggressive pay scales. If a man makes the general roster but isn't dressed and on the field for a game, he receives no money. Women get paid for each game simply for being on the roster. Some of the pay differences are the result of different priorities and bargaining strategies. Which brings us back to a concerning premise -- whether men and women play together or not, why should they negotiate separately? They do the same job for the same company with the generally the same requirements. They are all elite athletes in their categories and they all equally represent the organization and United States. If we reject the premise of separate contract negotiations, then the pay disparity dissolves.
So it seems we've arrived at a conclusion, which is not really a conclusion at all. It is a series of questions that US Soccer, FIFA, the athletes, and the fans must all consider. What is the purpose of the sport? Why do men and women play separately? Why do men and women negotiate their contracts separately? I'm inclined to respond "for entertainment," "because it allows women to compete and enjoy too," and "because no one is thinking clearly."
So here's the solution. From now on, have all men's and women's players negotiate together. Players should be signing essentially the same contracts; they should be entitled to the same percentages of profits from jersey and merchandise sales, ticket sales, and TV advertising sales. If we base all this purely on physical might, then the men deserve most of the money. If we base it on previous labor agreements, then the men deserve most of the money. But if we acknowledge that the players on both teams support greater equality, then simply group them together as common employees for negotiation purposes. I'm still undecided on the sexual separation of professional sports. I'm still undecided on the entertainment-to-dollar value of professional sports. But I'm fully decided on this -- if the men and women work together in their contract negotiations, the pay gap will disappear, the equity and justice will increase, the conflict will dissolve, and the incentive for young men and women to compete will increase.
UPDATE: In this OPEN LETTER, US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro explains the collective bargaining differences between the men's and women's teams as well as the varied (and sometimes better) compensation the women receive. The conclusions above, regarding the premises of segregated sports and, more importantly, segregated bargaining, remain intact. But this statement is worth reading.
~~Don't forget to check out this segment from the ClassCast podcast, Episode 003~~
By Jim Dunning
[WARNING: The perspective I present here is not carved in the granite of my brain — this is what we in the high school debate world (as opposed to the presidential debate world) call a Constructive, meant to prompt responses intended to transform my opinion. That means “Write back! This is a dialogue.”]
Not too long ago, one of my students told me her life’s aspiration is to fix what my generation did to the world. I asked what she believed needed fixing: “You know, the environment, poverty, poor health care, hunger, crime-especially-gun-violence, discrimination, and inequality. All the stuff you created.” I asked how that all was my generation’s doing, and she said because we have made it worse. Admirably, unlike us Baby Boomers, she wants to leave the world better than she found it.
There’s irony in that I probably have to explain my meaning of “generation gap” to the demographic that substantiates the current reality — a fitting punishment for incipient senescence. Google Ngram neatly marks the term’s entry into the world and paints its decline to today’s virtual obscurity.
Although the term was born just a handful of years after my birth, the concept has been around since the idea of “teenager” has been around. That is, ever since adolescents transcended from being primarily a resource to a marketing demographic. I chuckle—wearily now—when I hear my contemporaries complain/lament/rail/bitch about the moral decline of today’s youth because they don’t seem to ever consider how much they sound like their parents.
Of course, this creates the Generation Gap, with opposing sides pointing fingers, invective, and sometimes guns at each other.
For me, it was parents complaining about my generation’s music, politics, entitlement, sense of entitlement, clothes, sexuality and sex, drugs and sex, etc. Our complaints back at them were about the environment, discrimination, inequality, poverty, violence, politics, and hunger — all pretty much summarized with “Never trust anyone over 30!” and a determination to leave the world better than we found it.
In fact, this Generational Gap finger-pointing has been going on for centuries.
Based on my own experience (and past belief system(s)), I can understand why my student blames me for her pessimistic perception of the world—after all, I did that once. My generation’s short-term memory is unsurprising since it’s so pervasive, but still frustrating; I almost think, given the thousands of years of its history, that criticism of the next generation must serve some evolutionary biological purpose; what it is, I haven’t figured out.
Thus, I am not shocked at my student’s assessment and goals.
But I am bewildered — primarily because of the enormous amount of historical and contemporary information available to Millennials in the form of entertainment, news, and scholarly works. A Millennial's “Thoughts from a hipster coffee shop…” recently served up this indictment of her peers--
“I’m sitting in a small coffee shop near Nokomis trying to think of what to write about. I scroll through my newsfeed on my phone looking at the latest headlines of Democratic candidates calling for policies to ‘fix’ the so-called injustices of capitalism. I put my phone down and continue to look around. I see people talking freely, working on their MacBooks, ordering food they get in an instant, seeing cars go by outside, and it dawned on me. We live in the most privileged time in the most prosperous nation and we’ve become completely blind to it.”
This brings me to my question for the Far Side of the Generation Gap. Not only do we have—literally—at our fingertips the greatest trove of information ever available to any human, but, as we look out the Starbuck’s window, what is it that we see that makes so many of us fervently believe the world is worse off than it was yesterday or last week or last year or 30 or 50 years ago?
Do we live in the “most privileged time” ever?
Not to say that the world is perfect (it definitely is not), but, personally, I can easily recall that my family never got strawberries in December in snowy Western New York when I was a kid — metonymic for access to food and every type of consumer good imaginable is unimaginably greater today than it was 50 years ago in this country. Grocery stores looked nothing like what most Americans experience now. In fact, not only does just about everything that was around when I was in high school cost less in dollars, but significantly less in the number of labor hours required to purchase it. And that leaves out all the stuff that wasn’t even thought of then but is quotidian now.
Yes, there are social and economic and personal injustices—still!— but today’s “Marches” were bloody riots when I was a kid. During my sophomore year in high school, on average, a bomb went off somewhere in the United States every day! There were armed soldiers on college campuses. My mom had to have my dad’s permission to have her bank issue her a credit card. When I was seven, my dad couldn’t get to his store for a week because race riots had burned out swaths of the city.
That stash of information in everyone’s pocket seems to back up my anecdotal evidence. Data shows that income and wealth for everyone has done nothing but increase in the past half-century--
—not only in this country, but the world…
The current narrative for Millenials is that they are unable to start families and buy houses and big-ticket consumer goods — all because they believe they are the first generation to not do as well as their parents. They all walk around with $1,000 mega-computer-communicators in their pockets, but think the world is devolving into chaos and disaster. Is it really?
What does the world look like on your side of the Gap? Comment below!
Because no one else