Friday, February 27, 2009

What Does Congressman Mike Pence Believe?

Here is the text of a message that I posted on the website of Congressman Mike Pence (R-Indiana) earlier today:
Yesterday, Congressman Pence was introduced at the Conservative Political Action Conference by Cliff Kincaid, head of Accuracy in Media. During his introduction, Mr. Kincaid suggested that President Obama is a "communist" and fed the conspiracy theory that President Obama is not a natural born citizen and thus ineligible to be President. After the introduction, Congressman Pence thanked Mr. Kincaid for the introduction. During his speech, Congressman Pence did not challenge either of Mr. Kincaid's assertions. Thus, I would like to know whether Congressman Pence believes: (a) that President Obama is actually a communist and/or (b) whether President Obama is a natural born citizen eligible to be President of the United States.

Rep. Pence is currently holds the #3 post in the Republican caucus. It will be interesting to see if (and how) he responds.


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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Now on Twitter, Too!

For no good reason (other than to be like a lemming and follow everyone else), I've created an account on Twitter. I have no idea if I'll find myself posting tweets frequently, infrequently, or not at all. Only time will tell. But given how often I've been hearing about Twitter (live tweets from President Obama's speech last night from members of Congress!), it seemed like it was worth checking out.


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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Are My Children Being Taught About Terrorism?

Yesterday, I was looking through the papers that my kids brought home from school (they're in 3rd grade). Among the papers was a series of definitions for the unit on health that they just completed (and got good grades in, I might add). The unit dealt with emergencies and included words like "emergency", "responsible adult", "shelter", and "natural disaster" (if I recall correctly). By and large, the choice of words and their respective definitions seemed fine, with one notable exception: The word "terrorism" was defined as someone "trying to cause a disaster".*

I'm not sure that I would necessarily agree with teaching about terrorism in a health class rather than as part of some kind of social studies curriculum, but that is a minor quibble. More important are the omissions and ambiguities included in the definition. As presented to the kids, the definition of "terrorism" does include an intent component but is wholly lacking in a a corresponding motive component (more on this below). Moreover, the use of the term "disaster" in the definition is, at best, only partially accurate but unclear and, at worst, wholly misleading. Only in fiction is the goal of the terrorist to cause an earthquake or drought. Real world terrorists seek to cause chaos, destruction, and death. Furthermore, I suspect that most terrorists would not view the harm caused to their victims as a "disaster" at all, but rather, as some form of glorious outcome. Finally, the definition does not make it clear that the terrorist committing the terrorism is bad.

I'm not sure that I can readily come up with an example of a terrorist action that was intended to cause some kind of harm that was not also endeavoring to seek some purpose or resolution. Terrorists don't fly planes into buildings just to make the buildings fall down and they don't blow themselves up in pizza parlors just to destroy a pizza parlor; instead, they do these things with the hope that their actions will lead to some political or military change or resolution. And I'm not sure that I can readily come up with an example of a terrorist action that was not also intended to cause injury or death (even eco-terrorists who spike trees do so with the thought that a logger who tries to cut a spiked tree could be injured thus making the logger less likely to cut the particular tree). I guess that if we want to include as terrorism efforts by animal rights activists to free lab test animals or throw paint on fur coats you could have an example of terrorism that doesn't seek to injure or kill, but those examples are quite a stretch and certainly not the incidents that most of us think about when we think about terrorism.

It seems though, that any discussion of the meaning of the word "terrorism" must include some discussion of what the terrorist hopes to achieve. Even if that discussion is only in the most generic of terms, there has to be an understanding that the terrorism has a motive for the terrorist act. And, part of this discussion, must make clear that terrorism is not an acceptable methodology for securing desired goals; children must be taught that terrorism is bad. Even if we only express this in terms of criminality, there must be a recognition and educational component that reinforces that terrorism is never acceptable. The definition given to my children fails in all respects.

Maybe third graders are too young to learn what terrorism really is, but in that case, it would be better not to discuss it at all rather than give them a definition that is so far off base and that will only serve to cause confusion. Maybe we'd be better off telling our kids that there are bad people in the world who, when they don't get their way, instead of throwing a toy across the room or hitting or screaming, do really, really bad things that are meant to hurt (or kill) many people. But to leave out of a definition of terrorism both the motive and the real intent seems to me to be yet another disservice that we do to our children. And to fail to make clear to them that terrorism and terrorists are bad leaves them open the suggestion that terrorism might, in some cases, be morally acceptable or even to view some terrorists as heroes rather than villains.

As long as we're engaged in a "war on terror" (or whatever new term may come to replace that), shouldn't we be honest (or at least honest-lite) with our kids? I'd rather that they understand that there are bad people who don't like America and what America stands for than think that there are simply some rogue idiots who want to cause earthquakes. I don't know how much we should be teaching our third graders about terrorism (or crime or war); but I don't think that we should sugarcoat things so much that they lose their meaning and potency.
If we're going to address difficult subjects with our children, whether it be terrorism or sexual education, we need to be sure that the information that we provide is accurate and not misleading.

*Note that, unfortunately, I can't find the paper that included the definition (my wife threw it away, not knowing that I had set it aside in order to write about it); thus, my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it does, I believe, fairly capture the flavor of the definition (and the definition did use the word "disaster").

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Monday, February 16, 2009

LibraryThing: Several updates

I've updated my LibraryThing catalog with brief reviews of The Walk-In by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo, Arctic Drift [Dirk Pitt #20] by Clive Cussler & Dirk Cussler, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I'm now reading The Case Against Israel's Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace by Alan Dershowitz and ... um ... er ... well ... I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but I've also started reading -- I'm only doing it to satisfy my wife who begged and pleaded and cajoled -- I started reading Twilight [Twilight Saga #1] by Stephanie Meyer. Before I start reading, I put my testosterone in the draw with my wedding ring.


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Friday, February 13, 2009

Indiana Teachers Should Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences (But Can Apparently Ignore Religious Differences) (update)

Earlier this week, I wrote about Indiana House Bill 1187 (cultural competency for teachers) and an amendment that stripped "religious" as one of the categories of cultural competency for teacher education. Since publishing my original post, it has been suggested to me (by a lobbyist) that the stated intent of the amendment was not a slap at religion as I suggested, but rather, a recognition that state (or federal?) law prohibits schools from asking students about their religion and, thus, the school would have no way of knowing what religions should be included in the cultural competency training of teachers. Bullshit.

First, while schools may be prohibited from asking students about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), they are, I presume, also prohibited from asking those same students about their ethnic or national heritage and are probably prohibited from asking whether a student is from a socially disadvantaged family. So why remove just one area from the competency training? There is no way for a teacher to know whether a particular child is originally from Mexico or Guatemala or Argentina, from Croatia, Bosnia, or Serbia, from Sudan, Nigeria, or South Africa, yet we are willing to include ethnicity in the list of groups for which teachers should have some exposure to cultural differences.

More importantly, it seems that there a core group of religions that we can presume a teacher might encounter and for which a school district could include a component in its cultural competency education (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, seem the most likely). Wouldn't it be better to provide teachers some degree of understanding of these religions rather than removing religion as an educational component entirely? And, if a school district happens to know of a particular religious group (Amish, for example?) in its community, it could easily add that to the competency training.

The "explanation" for the amendment may provide good political cover, but it simply doesn't hold water.

As further "evidence" for my belief that Rep. Thompson's amendment was, in fact, aimed at minority religions and was not merely an attempt to "protect" schools from trying to learn what religions their students are, we can examine another amendment that Rep. Thompson offered to HB 1187 (which, so far, has not been brought to a vote):
"diverse needs" does not include harmful behaviors, including the following: (1) Homosexuality. (2) Sexual relations outside of marriage [citation omitted]. (3) The use of tobacco. (4) The illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages, or the excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. (5) The use of illegal drugs. (6) Excessive overeating. [internal periods included in original]

Yes, you read that correctly. In Rep. Thompson's worldview, homosexuality and adultery are to be compared with the use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. And, the way that I read that amendment, what it really means is that when teachers learn about cultural competency so that they can best serve the diverse needs of their students, they should not be learning about any of the aforementioned "bad behaviors" and, therefore, should not consider those issues when trying to deduce the best way to teach a child.

Perhaps in Rep. Thompson's district there aren't any families that consist of same-sex domestic partners who are raising a child; and perhaps there aren't any families where a parent is an alcoholic or a drug user. I find it hard to believe, but maybe there aren't any families with unwed parents (or even a divorced or widowed parent with a boyfriend or girlfriend). But wouldn't it be better to allow a teacher to adapt teaching methods to best serve each individual child's "diverse needs" instead of telling teachers not to consider certain needs that some consider "bad"? I think that we do our children a disservice in their education if we stick our collective heads in the sand and ignore the reality of the actual diversity of our students and their families.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Indiana Teachers Should Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences (But Can Apparently Ignore Religious Differences)

Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) has authored House Bill 1187 which would require the Indiana Department of Education to require standards for cultural competency teacher training. House Bill 1187 requires standards for teacher education to prepare teachers:
to teach successfully in a manner that serves the diverse needs of all students, including: (1) racial minority students; (2) low social economic status students; (3) English language learners; (4) students who are exceptional learners (citation omitted); and (5) students of various ethnic or religious groups.

House Bill 1187 would also require as part of teacher training "methods that use the cultural knowledge, experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for those students".

These certainly seem to be a laudable goals; after all, how can it hurt for our children's teachers to be sensitive to the diversity of their students and to consider that diversity when determining how best to help those children learn? I'm not sure that the goal can be readily accomplished and I have some concerns about how the training would be done, but by and large, this seems like a generally good idea. Plus, I really like Rep. Porter.

But imagine my surprise to see the amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Thompson (R-Lebanon/Danville) that stripped "religious" from the list of diverse backgrounds for which competency training is to be mandated. Even more unbelievable, this amendment passed the Indiana House by a vote of 77-15!

Take a moment and think about what Rep. Porter has proposed and what Rep. Thompson's amendment has done to that proposal. Rep. Porter wants the Department of Education to formulate education standards so that teachers can be sensitive to the needs and cultural backgrounds of an ever-diversifying student population. Rep. Thompson apparently agrees that teachers should be sensitive to those diverse needs and cultural backgrounds except for religious differences. I guess in Rep. Thompson's world, a teacher should understand and be sensitive to students of a minority racial background or to students from a low socio-economic standing or those just learning to speak English and even those whose native culture differs from that of mainstream America. But Rep. Thompson doesn't want those teachers to have the same education about or sensitivity to students who are from a religious minority. Said differently, Rep. Thompson apparently doesn't think that teachers should be sensitive to the needs and differences of students who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or any of the myriad other religious traditions represented in Indiana's classrooms. Rep. Thompson wants teachers to operate under the presumption that all students, whether white or black, rich or poor, native English speaker or new immigrant, and coming from any cultural background around the world, are Christian. Why else is Rep. Thompson willing to encourage cultural competency but exclude religious groups from that sensitivity?

I suppose that some might suggest that Rep. Thompson's amendment was for the purpose of maintaining the separation of church and state, but that is, in reality, a patently false notion. Teachers are not being asked to teach religion; nor is the Department of Education being asked to teach religion. Rather, Rep. Porter's initial bill would have required teachers to be instructed on the basic differences between students as a result of their religious upbringing. What is wrong with a teacher knowing that some students might not eat certain foods or might be required to wear certain clothing for religious reasons? What is wrong with a teacher recognizing that certain students may celebrate different holidays and might be absent from school for those days? More importantly, what is wrong with a teacher knowing that a certain example that might be used to illuminate a point might not be understood by children raised in a different religious context (for example, certain biblical parables that might, in fact, be excellent examples, may be completely meaningless to children unfamiliar with those parables; similarly, discussions of holiday observances may serve to exclude those who don't follow those observances).

I'm certainly willing to listen to another explanation for Rep. Thompson's amendment, but to me it looks like nothing short of religious intolerance and a desire to further enshrine Christianity as the de facto (maybe even de jure) religion of Indiana's schools.

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