Monday, September 30, 2019

We must cultivate our social conscience

Social conscience.

Maybe I should give credit to my dad, the XMan, and mom, Anne Stevens, because I grew up cultivating a social conscience. I understood early on that we're all in this together and that we have a country of connection. That's why it's called the United States of America.

My dad loved wearing a T-shirt that said "All One People." A few years back, my mom wore it on the first day of a summer visit. But it's not like we have a social conscience, and it's over. A social conscience is a garden. It must be grown and pruned, and as we get older, we realize more and more. For me, my social conscience has grown, and I'm pretty sure it has collectively in many ways.

So here are 10 nonfiction books related to social conscience that I recommend.

1. The New Jim Crow (2010) by Michelle Alexander
2. White Fragility (2018) by Robin DiAngelo
3. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) by Paulo Freire
4. Born on Third Base (2016) by Chuck Collins
5. Dark Money (2016) by Jane Mayer
6. The Vanishing American Adult (2017) by Ben Sasse
7. Food Not Lawns (2006) by Heather Jo Flores
8. So You Want to Talk about Race (2018) by Ijeoma Oluo
9. Black Boy (1945) by Richard Wright
10. Night (1956) by Elie Wiesel

Bam. Those are some incredible books. I love them.

The other day, my uncle was wondering why I don't read much fiction nowadays. Well, I just think the American norm today is such an odd reality that everyday life often feels like fiction. Nonfiction, especially books connected to social conscience, ground me and actually make me feel more human.

My uncle made a great point. He said, "Nonfiction strives for illuminating truth. Fiction strives for illuminating art."

The project continues tomorrow with our seventh category — "hard to categorize." Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The idea of neutrality does not exist

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." — Elie Wiesel

As anyone who has studied World War II knows, the numbers of those who died in the war and during the Holocaust are astronomically sickening. An estimated 70 to 85 million died when the world population was 2.3 billion. That's 3 percent of the world.

If World War II happened today with same percentage, we would lose 226 million of our 7.53 billion people.

In the Holocaust alone, we lost approximately 6 million Jews. The world looked on, complicit in this genocide, and it was a display of humanity at its worst.

But how do we really put this mass atrocity into words? How do we teach this to future generations?

Well, Night helps. I revisited the 1956 book last year and had my students read it. There are so many chilling scenes, and I believe Wiesel's decision to simply report various atrocities and not sensationalize or go overly emotional was the most effective way to show his first-hand experience of the Holocaust.
Earlier this year, a student and I got Holocaust survivor Gerda Seifer to visit our school and do a talk and Q & A. I realized that some students didn't totally understand the gravity of the Holocaust. That was shocking to me.

In the world of constant entertainment, "fake news" and students being bombarded with meaningless assignments and homework, the Holocaust can slip through the cracks to some. I had a strange encounter with a student who was explaining that he did indeed know a lot about the Holocaust because he got a perfect score on a test about World War II but then asking a year later, did not remember the details.

So, I guess the lesson is with the modern student who don't have a personal connection to the Holocaust is to teach and re-teach, to bring in speakers like Gerda, to read Night and remember that we first must examine the deficiencies of the human race in order to improve on those.

Night is a hugely known book and important to anyone's education. As Wiesel writes, "To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Wright way in the Jim Crow South

I cannot stand "the canon." By the canon, I mean the commonly "taught" books in schools.

Did you actually like those books when you were in school?

Now, I went pro and am a writer and English teacher. So, I did indeed like a bunch classics. Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five and 1984 come to mind as books in the canon that work for me.

But, honestly, so many other books don't work for me that I constantly wonder why we don't do updated books or ones that are overlooked. Black Boy (1945) by Richard Wright has been getting more attention in recent years, and I wholeheartedly vote to put it in the canon and keep it there.

I added Black Boy to my freshman class last year when I could not believe that my colleague English teachers wanted to do To Kill a Mockingbird for an 80th consecutive year (hyperbole, but barely). English teachers gasp when I say I'm not a fan of TKAM. Say what?

Here's the deal. TKAM perpetuates the rich white perspective and perpetuates fake court. OK, I will concede that there are some scenes and themes that are worthwhile, but geez Louise, haven't we overdone it with TKAM?

"Blasphemy!" you might say.

So last year, I did something tricky. We co-read TKAM and Black Boy, did some comparisons, and I tried not to let out my bias. Black Boy enthralled the students. From the opening scenes, in which Richard lights the house on fire and kills a cat, the kids got a view of abject poverty passed down from generations.
The portrayals of Tom Robinson and Richard Wright obviously are huge. Of course, Richard is the hero, of sorts, in Black Boy, and good old Atticus Finch is the white-male hero in TKAM. A white male hero? What a change!

But the thing I absolutely can't stand about TKAM is the court-room scene, the one that most teachers show the Gregory Peck Hollywood version. Either way, book or movie, it's just so fictitious, I can't take it. An attorney pal told me he became a lawyer because of that scene, only to quickly learn that practicing law isn't like that whatsoever.

Black Boy is such a gem. To see what Wright went through and to understand that he somehow educated himself and escaped the South — it's an inspiration! It certainly is not an inspiration for the culture of the Jim Crow South, but that he somehow triumphs so we can read his experiences. It's amazing, and I must say that Richard Wright deserves any and all accolades he receives.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

More productive conversations on race

I must do a little introspection and point out that it is slightly "cute" that I am recommending Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk about Race (2018). It's not cute because the book's topic or author.

It just might be a little cute that this white boy is recommending it after Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Oluo's book is much different than those two. I find it "messier," but I'm not trying to be negative. A lot of our feelings toward race are emotional, sometimes changing and contradictory. Conversations on race can be messy.

Oluo leans into popular dialogues that come up by race by starting each chapter with a question, like, "I just got called a racist. What do I do?" and "Why can't I say the 'N' world?"

It's candid, straight talk, and to me, the book underscores a huge problem. White people have the ability, or luxury, to avoid thinking about race and conversing about it. I guess I can't go back in time, but I would have liked to be more educated on race earlier. But the thing about race, from a white perspective, is that you actually have to seek out an education on the topic or you remain ignorantly white.
A huge point that Oluo makes in the book is about systemic racism that has been a part of our country since the arrival of white settlers. It is built into our institutions and behavior. We are all part of a racist country and system, so if we are "racist" or not, the bigger issue is to understand the racist institutions of our country.

The question I ponder is that as white male: How do I use my white privilege to help the cause? Well, here are at least three things this white guy has come up with. 1) Accept the fact that I am limited. I have a white male perspective; that cannot change. I have benefited in many regards because of my race, and I should at least recognize this.

2) Embrace conversations on race and listen more than talk. I often act like I have all the answers all the time, and I do not, especially with race. Feelings vary on the topic as do our backgrounds, and these feelings are valid. I will never validate hate from white people toward other races, but I understand that a gamut of emotions comes up with race talk.

3) Try to understand the entire cultural context of a person. The good news about where I work I teach is that the student white population is only 5 percent, so we have a lot of students with much different backgrounds and cultures. This matters. It is hugely important to not assume middle America TV culture on others. That was my culture. It's not everybody's.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Food not lawns: I couldn't agree more


For today's selection of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend, it is a special treat because I actually know the author, Heather Jo Flores, who penned Food Not Laws: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community (2006).

I met Heather in Portland and then dutifully read Food Not Laws. The book is part of a movement to do what it says — to replace grassy laws with edible food. Honestly, I see no point of our grassy lawns, other than tradition and conformity.  I imagine if the entire United States followed Heather's lead, the air quality would improve, we would use water more efficiently and our land would be so much healthier.

Here is the irony, though. Albeit it quite tiny, my lawn still is grass. I am sorry, Heather. I swear we will at at least put in drought-resistant landscaping and, hopefully, a garden. I vow to get with it — eventually.

When I was in Ohio recently, I ran across a yard with crops in Cleveland Heights and a homemade sign that read "Food Not Lawns!" I thought, "Wow, this is actually a bit of a thing."
There are 50 Food Not Lawns chapters worldwide, and I hope the movement keeps growing. I find it sad that to turn a lawn into a food-producing garden is a subversive act. It shouldn't be that way.

Heather wrote a page-turning book that is a mixture of philosophy and practical advice. I found that I am 100 percent onboard with the philosophy part, but needed help with the practical side. One of my hangups is that I am in Southern California, so it rains so infrequently that I didn't want to waste water on a garden.

But it's a silly thought because I already waste water on the grass, so why do I let that thought hold me back? I guess I have a bit of self-loathing on the Food Not Lawns issue because while I wholeheartedly support the movement, I'm not doing it myself. Am I really supporting it then? Hmm.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What has happened to adulthood?

I will admit that I play fantasy football. I have a collection of 75 Chewbaccas. When I get together with my cousins, we sometimes play Nintendo, and we're in our 40s.

Let's be honest. A lot of adult behavior like this is perfectly acceptable nowadays, but it would be unheard of a generation or two ago.

Americans typically put off adulthood as long as they can, and then when they have some semblance of being an adult, they often act like children and raise kids by giving them phones and iPads and escaping themselves into oblivion.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse addresses this true, yet sad, state of affairs in The Vanishing American Adult (2017). I wholeheartedly respond to the book because it's spot on and true. I also like the fact that he's a Republican because I am not but open to views from all. I see what he sees in modern-day America.

Sasse writes that Americans are wrapped up in consumerism and are lacking in spirituality and empathy. He recommends four main actions for a better life and society: 1) work hard, 2) resist consumerism, 3) read widely and 4) have families live in a place different from their home.

I love his recommendations, but the truth is that so many Americans are working so hard without enough of a payoff that they are vulnerable to work exhaustion. They don't have the strength or education to resist consumerism or read. Living in a different place would be great, too, but that assumes the means and no-how to do so.

I see The Vanishing American Adult from two perspectives, personally and systemically. Personally, I agree. I learned a long time ago that we can't truly trust many of our country's institutions — the education system, health-care system, welfare — to take care of us.
Health care is a glaring example. Are we in good hands with this system? Oh, god, no. We have to do everything in our power to stay healthy. We should do our best to stay away from pharmaceuticals and know that health care is bottom-line driven.

Education is another example. It's real easy to get a college degree and not really be educated. For a lot of people, that's their plan. They want a vocation, not an education, and they're cool with that. Well, that doesn't work for me or my kids. So we understand that we have to fight to be educated.

With Sasse's book, I obviously respond to the importance to read widely, but sadly the average American hardly reads any more. When Sasse talks about resisting consumerism, that is a huge point. There is just so much available and at the consumer's fingertips that it is easy to get wrapped up into a life of mere consumption.

I have been guilty of binge watching three or four hour-long Netflix shows in a row. Some of my students report that they do the same thing — daily. We have so much content and products readily available, that I have learned that less is more. We are not at our best when consuming takes over our days, and we lose connections with our family, friends and a connection to nature and actual life.

Systemically, Sasse's book could have been titled The Vanishing Middle Class. America is strongest when we have a strong middle class, and the way wealth has gone, the middle class as I know it is either gone or has jumped up to upper.

When there is no economic hope, what is a brother to do? He will escape. He will live a life that isn't his or full. He will live a life not in real time because that real time is painful. That is what is happening across our nation, and I pray we have individuals who can embrace their adulthoods, find spiritual meaning and lead lives of hopes.

Monday, September 23, 2019

How can we live with dark money?

Ethics. I think it's fair to say that corporations and billionaires owe themselves and society ethical actions that are good for not just a few, but the whole.

So when I read the hugely important Dark Money (2016) by Jane Mayer I was outraged by the shady and unethical actions of the Koch brothers in a political system that somehow allows it.

Now, instead of going through Mayer's award-winning reporting of the b.s. nonprofits set up by the Koch brothers and the repeated buying of Republican nominees, I would like to address a different angle.

What about us?

I believe that democracy is not a right, but a privilege. And with this privilege, we owe it to ourselves and society to be educated on how our democracy works, how our economic system works and what our focus of improvements should be.

So while Dark Money is a necessary and wonderful book, I will leave it to the reader to check out the book and see how billionaire money works with our political system. Yeah, there are a few dry spells in the meticulously reported book, but it left me upset that corporate campaign donations and special interest lobbies typically are hidden from the average American.
So I ask this question: Is it possible for the average American to escape the rhetoric of cable news, politicians and their own prejudices to understand how government and capitalism work in 2019?

I want to say "yes," but the truth is that most Americans are oppressed and don't even realize it. They are stuck in constant "entertainment" consumerism and are either in debt or working crazy long hours just to stay afloat. Do they actually have time, or the drive, to understand the immorality and power of the Koch brothers and similar billionaires?

I'm not so sure they do. They rather escape, and if they turn to a news outlet, it is most likely going to be a corporate one that plays into whatever their limited ideology is. Never will those outlets underscore that they are for profit, and they'll be back — "right after this commercial break."

What we have in our current political climate is what happens when capitalism goes unchecked at the top. The top has gotten so powerful that it can go ahead, own politicians and make its own rules. For the love of God, look at all of the rollbacks in the current administration. It's unacceptable.

Now, sure, this has been happening for at least 40 years and possibly throughout our country's history. But on this mass scale with obfuscating escape devices — the phone — literally in everyone's pockets, I just don't see how the powerful just aren't going to keep getting more powerful and the average person will stay ignorant.

Yeah, we are in the era of "fake news," constant Tweets of goofiness from the president and hardly agreed upon sources of news. It's hard to blame ourselves, and I'm not doing that. But it's time to understand that things like dark money in politics are absolutely real, not some conspiracy.

This is a bipartisan issue. It's time we stop doing the same things and same escapes and improve ourselves and our world.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Let's focus on the .00085 percenters

Generational wealth.

Quite frankly, I would like my daughters and their children (if they choose to have them) to have choices in life. I hope they get to choose occupations that fit their passions and that they pay for their children's college.

To me, that should be available for all Americans. Unfortunately, it is not.

I have read no other book that has illuminated wealth distribution and our collective responsibility about it than Chuck Collins' Born on Third Base (2016). He is a "one-percenter," and he makes the argument that we need to be aware of wealth distribution and how it affects us. He also points out how many of us live false narratives when it comes to wealth. Actually, he does much more than that, but that was where I connected when I read it.

First of all, the majority of Americans own basically nothing. The net worth of the average American is $97,000, which to me is hardly nothing when we consider the costs of homes and cars and basic things. What also is sad is that 20 percent of Americans are in the hole or worth under $4,800. Ouch.

If those stats aren't wild enough, thing go really out of whack at the top of the wealth chain. To be a "20 percenter" and be in the top 20 percent of wealth in the country, one must have $500,000 of assets. Then, a "10 percenter" is worth $1.1 million. A "five percenter" is $2.3 million, and the one-percenter is worth $10.3 million.

Here is where a major misconception occurs. When we casually talk about the problems of wealth distribution, we point to the one-percenters as the problem. That's not exactly accurate. If anyone has $10 million in assets, I say good for you! Heck, because I am unabashed capitalist, I say assets of $50 million are getting pretty high, but, OK, keep your $50 million.
Here is where we will present bold ideas. In Collins' book, he sees a United States that is for the common good, not the good of a few. But first things first, we must make sure that individuals are educated on what wealth distribution actually is.

This is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue. Statistically, if we assume all 585 billionaires in the United States were Republicans, that that would represent .00085 percent of the party. That's nothing. They would have to add approximately 62,000 more billionaires to that even represent 1 percent of the Republican party.

Yet the political agenda for the Republican party (and the Democrat party, too, but to a lesser degree) favors those 585 billionaires more than anyone. How is this happening?

It is not capitalism vs. socialism. It is about power and wealth gone wrong — big time — and so now what?

Collins has a conscience, and part of his argument is aimed at one-percenters to develop a better ethical understanding and see that their wealth can be for the greater good. Good point. However, the real problem is the .00085 percenters.

I am more concerned about voters understanding the truth of where we are with wealth distribution and then acting accordingly. I cannot bestow my values on others, but I can say that, to me, the out of whack wealth distribution is the No. 1 problem our country faces.

The reason why it's No. 1 is simple: All other issues stem from it. When we look at the problems of the health-care system, prison system, gun lobby, big tech, student loans and practically any of our 21st century issues, they would not exist without the .00085 percenters.

I simply cannot fathom why we tax wages and do not tax assets. That makes absolutely no sense to me. It's OK to have some holdings and pay no taxes. But if you actually work for your living, we're going to tax it. Why is that fair? Huh?

But the real problem is not only the .00085 percenters but those who are worth more than $50 million. These folks need to pay way more in taxes and create more actual non-profits that do something. And that's another can of worms because many non-profits are just tax shields. Democrats, Republicans, everybody. I think we can all agree on this.

Friday, September 20, 2019

We oppress and are oppressed

What the heck is this?

That's what I was thinking when I started reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) by Paolo Freire. Some parts were difficult to understand. Others seemed too wordy. Freire is Brazilian, so it originally was in Portuguese. I wondered if I were losing something in the translation.

But boom, clap, here it comes. Soon, I got the concepts in the book, and I was astounded by how deep and progressive they were. This was written in 1968?

The society and classrooms that Freire describes remain the norm in 2019, and I wish the world soaked in his ideas and applied them.

A major concept in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is that the educational model we have is based on the colonizer and colonized. So we look at students as empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. I see that teachers do that, or think that way, to this day. But when we do this, it dehumanizes the student. It perpetuates the colonizer model and doesn't serve either the student or teacher.

Rather, what we should strive for is for the teacher and student to work in tandem with discovering, understanding and creating knowledge. As educators, we are not bestowing knowledge onto others. Instead, we are opening the student, guiding the student and modeling humanity.

In the teacher-student model, the teacher is the oppressor while the student is the oppressed. A major point is that this relationship works for neither. In all cases of oppressor-oppressed, the relationship works for neither, and this is a lightening-bolt idea that I love.
I had assumed that the goal of society is to be the winner, be the billionaire. Unfortunately, the billionaire lives a sick life. Yes, I say that about Oprah, Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos or any oppressor that comes to mind.

We live in a sick society that lauds the oppressor. Billionaires are our saviors of some sorts. This is who we should aspire to be. We want to be one of these 2,208 billionaires in the world or 585 in the United States. It's mathematically bonkers. That's the carrot dangling in front of the capitalists who make up a large part of the 7.7 billion people in the world.

Being a billionaire does not help society, nor does it help the individual billionaire. Because the billionaire exists, it enables poverty and economic disparity. The existence of the billionaire means the existence of homelessness; the billionaire and homeless are one of the same.

These guys can go ahead and own sports teams, create TV specials on Michael Jackson or fund any little company they please. But they are equally the problem, and the only way to enact major change is for them to understand this. Heck, the average person needs to get this, too.

Look, I don't want to oversimplify Pedagogy of the Oppressed because there is much more to the book than the idea that the oppressed and oppressor are one of the same. However, I felt inclined to focus on this important concept because it is where we are in 21st century U.S. economics.

Our lauding of billionaires needs to stop. Unfortunately, they have so much wealth and power that they can create fake images of themselves that we believe. Billionaires, and a lot of us nowadays, live in worlds of make believe, and in a land of oppression, both the oppressor and oppressed lose.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Whites remain fragile with race

I must admit that I have fallen into many white-guy traps when talking about race. I have tried to prove to minorities that "I'm one of the good ones" and "I'm on your side."

I also have shied away from race conversations because I was thinking "no good would come from this talk."

I have lived a life of white privilege and only within this past decade have come to understand what that entails and how I went a lot of my life without hardly considering race.

The truth is that many white people get emotional, angry, defensive and more with race talk, and Robin DiAngelo dissects what is happening there with her important 2018 book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

A while back, I did a blog on how ignorance is a choice. I believe that is true because even the simplest of minds should be able to see the systemic difficult roads for African-Americans. How did slavery make a lasting impact on our life in 2019? What do you define as your culture, and what are other cultures you know? What do you know about driving while black?

Heck, I could come up with a zillion teacher-like questions that could lead an elementary student to some sort of understanding on race. Yet that hardly happens, and a big reason why is white fragility.
It is peculiar that white people often have a hard time discussing race. They can get defensive, angry, agitated and combative. Why?

One theory is that colorblindness was en vogue for a quite a stretch, and maybe whites think, "Oh, Lord, aren't we past this race stuff?"

Well, we are not. Institutional racism and individual prejudice continue to march on, and this whole tactic to "pretend race doesn't even exist" did not help matters. I, too, understand that I need to listen more, not spout my limited ideas and open up to fuller views on race and perspectives that aren't mine.

Strangely, I find that many white liberals are horrific with race conversations. They act like they know-it-all or that they're a good white while the Southern whites are the bad ones. It's way off, poppycock.

I'm not trying to pit liberals against conversations. The president can go ahead and do that. Rather. I'm here to try to help others move forward, or unlock themselves, when it comes to race. Robin DiAngelo did that with me and White Fragility, and I thank her for it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The new Jim Crow — reprehensible

I love America. Let's go ahead and say that. I love the ideals, the diversity, the hope. I'm sold. The United States of America is bomb.

However ... America is more than ideals and hope. It's also about results. I love the United States so much that when results show that something needs improvement, it is our duty to come together and improve it.

Arguably, no other system in the U.S. needs more improvement than the for-profit prison system. This statement is not hyperbole because the hard facts and statistics show that men of color are disproportionately imprisoned in a systematic manner — big time. It is reprehensible, and the prison system's problems need to be at least a dialogue among the average citizen.

Michelle Alexander, a law professor at my alma mater Ohio State, has been crusading about the prison system for years, and I think "Michelle Alexander" should be a household name. Her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness should be required reading for all.

There is a chance that a team is only as good as its weakest link. Perhaps a society is only as strong as its weakest links. So maybe a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. If that is the case, then our current United States is among the worst societies in the history of the world.

The U.S. today is the most incarcerated society, by percentage and by raw numbers, in the history of the civilized word. We have 2.3 million prisoners, which I once wrote is the size of the fourth biggest city in our nation. Tons of statistics are outrageous with the prison system, and the one I'd like to focus on today is that we spend $32,000 per year on each prisoner.
Of course, Alexander does much more in The New Jim Crow than only look at the ridiculous cost of prisoners and that this money goes to for-profit companies. She goes in depth with statistics and hard facts and shows how the prison system systemically focuses on people of color and destroys lives, families and communities.

I find all of the infotainment about the criminal-justice system to be a joke. I'm talking cold-case shows, Law & Order b.s. and whatever fictitious stuff is on Netflix. Ultimately, these pretend shows display a criminal-justice system that just does not exist.

Why do courtroom drama shows exist when only 6 percent of state felonies go to trial and 3 percent of federal ones do? Why do we believe a crime has only to do with the criminal and not to do with our society or the so-called "criminal's" background and all of us?

That brings us to the $32,000 per year per prisoner. Why do we devote that much money to a punishment system that rarely reforms the prisoner?

Well, you guessed it. It helps the bottomline and stock positioning of corporations connected to the prison system. The prison system, like our addicting Starbucks and Apple, wants to keep its customers to continue to make its profits. In this case, the customers are literally prisoners.

Yes, this is messed up! This is not what the prison system in most developed countries does because their systems are not private and for profit.

No magic solution exists to this catastrophic system. I would go with decriminalizing drug offenses and reforming many criminal-justice laws as a start. But I also would add having the average person understand the situation and at least have more dialogue about it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

We can learn anything ... yes, anything

It turns out that we can learn anything. Really?!? But how?

First of all, we typically hold ourselves back. We think, "I'm not a good dancer," or "I can't sing," or "I can't fix anything."

Nah, while raw talent might help us get started, we can learn that stuff. We just need to commit, do it and practice. It does help to have a guide, and sometimes those guides are called teachers.

Others hold us back, too. Many conversations are full of gossip, judging, negativity, complaining, excuses, lying and dogmatism. For anyone who brings that junk out through their words, I believe they have unresolved issues and need to improve self-knowledge and how they affect others.

I bring all of this up because I am recapping the education section of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend. We are 50 books into this project, and this past stretch was all my pleasure because education certainly is a passion of mine.

I have realized that most educators are aliterate. They could read, but they do not. I think that lack of reading holds them back because they don't analyze or go deeper into the effectiveness of homework, grading, racial dynamics and a lot of the challenges they face in the classroom.

So here are 10 education books I recommend. My reading and exploration of education will continue throughout my lifetime, and here are 10 that speak to me.

1. Letters to a Young Teacher (2007) by Jonathan Kozol
2. The Homework Myth (2007) by Alfie Kohn
3. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (2017, 20th anniversary edition) by Beverly Daniel Tatum
4. Punished (2011) by Victor Rios
5. Excellent Sheep (2014) by William Deresiewicz
6. In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) by Fareed Zakaria
7. You Are Not Where You Go (2015) by Frank Bruni
8. Readicide (2009) by Kelly Gallagher
9. Rethinking School (2018) by Susan Wise Bauer
10. On Your Mark (2014) by Thomas Guskey

Many of these books can spark further exploration of the topics, and they did just that to me, especially with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. As a white male, I am no authority on race for sure, but Tatum's book sent my down a rabbit hole of sorts of race-related books. Thank you!

The next category of this project starts tomorrow, and that category is "social conscience." Stay tuned.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Grading: Taboo in Education

I have been fortunate enough to try many experiments in my classroom, and some succeed while others don't. However, I have never done anything wildly innovative with grades.

My biggest innovations are to start the grading scale at 50 percent. So the scale goes from 50-100. There are, hence, no zeroes. I also eliminated the D, so students can only receive A, B, C or F.

But I see this fact, day in and day: Grades hold students back.

The grading system doesn't encourage education and learning. Rather, it encourages doing the minimum to get the grade. It's a messed up system that perpetuates the minimum required and hinders growth. I'm a part of this.

I believe educators should question and improve their grading practices, and I highly recommend On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting (2014) by Thomas Guskey as a starting point. The great thing about this book is that it opens the door to mere questioning and does not make official judgement calls. It's open to interpretation, and I think that was a smart tactic because most people, especially educators, don't like to admit when they've made mistakes.

What is the point of grades in the first place? To me, they are a communication device to the student and parent. However, I also question if I would give grades if I didn't have to.

Ideally, grades should reflect learning. In reality, grades typically reward "doing the work" or "remembering the answers." Plus, in many classrooms, learning isn't happening either by design or by accident. It's by design when the teacher sets up a system that rewards going-through-the-motions type of assignments, and it's accidental when the teacher doesn't have a read on a student's starting point and progress.
Of course, let's have some sympathy for our teachers. The fact that they unwittingly participate in ineffective grading practices isn't their fault. Discussion of grading practices often is taboo in schools, and most educators don't realize how arbitrary their grading rules are.

I have probably given less than five F's in my 12 years as a high-school teacher. I pride myself with this because for students below grade level, and believe me there are numerous, I figure out where to meet them where they are and have them move forward. If a kid comes in as a freshman with a fourth-grade reading but leaves with a seventh-grade reading level, that's success. Right?

When I talk to teachers who give a lot of F's, the normal answer why is the student "just didn't do anything." OK, but where are they in regards to the standards? Are they failing the tests? What is the home situation like? Have you been teaching in different ways to help the student? This "just didn't do anything" is a red flag of some sort. What is this particular red flag?

I understand that we shouldn't just pass through students who are scholastically incompetent, but I personally take F's to heart and find ways for my students to learn and earn a passing grade.

A's also are problematic. I have five components to grading. By doing that, students can do poorly on tests and still get a good grade. The problem with my system is that some students figure out how to finesse it and not actually advance as much as they should.

Plus, A's are inflated. When my daughter recently graduated from middle school, she had all A's for three years, and I wondered if there would be a valedictorian or co-valedictorians or something like that. Nah, that didn't happen. Instead, the principal asked any student who received all A's for three years to stand up. About one third of the students stood up.

Perhaps it's time to call grades what they really are — meaningless at best and stifling at worst.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We must constantly rethink our schools

Maybe I'm lucky because both of my daughters are "into school." They talk about things they do there, get all A's and hardly complain about their meaningless homework. But what if that weren't the case? Then what?

For so many kids, school as we have it does not work. They may have special needs that aren't met. They may not want to comply with the constant rules. They may be too advanced to get any real education from school. Then what?

In Susan Wise Bauer's book Rethinking School (2018), she questions many practices in our schools, provides reasonable arguments and, ultimately, promotes homeschooling as a viable option.

I agree with so much of her arguments, and I believe homeschooling is an option in certain cases. But for my kids, I am not a proponent of homeschooling because I do not have a social circle in which they would be able to socialize and develop social skills that I see necessary in life. I also believe going to school promotes diversity, and that's hugely important.

If we believe that school is solely for book education, which I believe it isn't, then homeschooling is an option. Really? Well, someone once asked me why I'm against homeschooling, and my answer was this: "You got to meet people from different walks of life. You got to understand them. You also got to learn to deal with a**holes. You will encounter a lot of those in life."
I do not mean to diminish Bauer's book or even her reasoning for homeschooling. But I just felt as a public-school proponent, I was inclined to explain my homeschooling stance.

Public schools often have a one-size-fits-all approach, and why is this? I know that the model, curriculum and activities are outdated, and I believe students and parents need to understand this. Bauer does an excellent job at pointing this out.

Students and parents have the right to opt out of high-stakes testing, and they need to understand this. Why do we give our students so many meaningless high-stakes tests? In my world, at least the California Department of Education has released a dashboard of eight components of successful schools and made testing count 1/8th of what makes a good school.

But even with the state explaining how testing should be valued more properly, schools and educators are just so used to the testing, they still overvalue this mania of testing. So the big takeaway from Bauer's book is to question, question, question and don't accept the unacceptable. Schools and parents are a partnership; it's not one versus the other.

Yes, it's true that schools are mightily outdated in many regards, but good educators know that if they ran across a parent like Susan Wise Bauer, then it should foster an excellent relationship of someone who is brilliant at understanding education and caring about their kid's education.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Let's end readicide!

Readicide: the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

That's how Kelly Gallagher defines the term in his 2009 book Readicide. Thank you, Mr. Gallagher, I could not agree with you more!

After understanding what readicide is, I realized that I was a part of it when I was in school, and I think we all were. I would be assigned outdated, inaccessible, so-called classics. I would listen to the teacher drone on about his thoughts, and I thought, "Books are boring."

I found a few worth reading around seventh grade, but I hardly read in high school. Reading didn't truly happen until grad school and even later when I fell in love with books because I finally realized what they were.

The so-called "classics" repeated year after year in school are not what books are. Books are a portal. They're diverse. They're fiction, nonfiction, sports, style, whatever. There are libraries full of them, and guess what? I, myself, am allowed to read whatever the heck I chose.

It's like that for everyone, and you have my permission to read absolutely whatever you like. I'm talking books, not Internet stuff given to you by Big Tech, AKA Google. I'm talking books with pages that you hold in your hands.
What Gallagher's book did for me was to confirm what I have long suspected, but he even has data to prove the importance of a love of reading and extended reading. In the schools, attention spans appear to get shorter each year. Kids read less and less. So what they do in schools is that they put readings on Google Chromebooks and have kids read things that take around 5-10 minutes. Say, what?

When I get students in high school, most of them have virtually no extended reading skills. In a class of 33 high-achieving honors kids, typically only four of them have read a book on their own that was not assigned in school. What is going on here?

Gallagher shows data to prove that extended reading helps close reading. A good metaphor he uses involves Olympic champion Michael Phelps. While Phelps cleaned up in sprint races to win gold medals, that doesn't mean he can't swim for distance well. It is foolish to believe students can do well with close reading, while they can't really handle a full-length book on their own.

Offering many tactics to engage reluctant readers, I say, "Just read anything." Read what you like. If you like the band BTS, read about it. If you like sports, read about it. It's time to end readicide and love literacy because it turns out that reading is one of the most beautiful and empathetic activities a human being can do.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

We admit: Admissions are batty

In the 21st century, the college admissions process officially has gone bonkers. Kids are stressed out. Adults tie importance, and even identity, into colleges, and then the price tag on many colleges is astronomical.

In a college-admissions world gone batty, it is hard to stay sane, and Frank Bruni's book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be (2015) makes sense of the culture.

The irony with me is that I am an educator and highly value higher education. However, I'm not so sure higher education is even education nowadays. So many of the majors are career paths or vocational training of some sort that I just don't see a lot of the hullabaloo at colleges as even educational.

In Bruni's book, he addresses fundamental questions and the admissions mania. One point that stood out to me was this: "All in all, the harder a school is to get into, the more worthy it is deemed. Why?"

So many myths bounce around about colleges that I just have to laugh. Are you really getting a better education at an Ivy League school than a state university? Or do you just envy the brand name of the Ivy?

Bruni interviews various successful people who did not go to majorly elite colleges. One interview that sticks in my mind was with famous author John Green, who went to Kenyon College, which I once visited when my friend Alex went there. In many ways, it was like the opposite of my Ohio State because it was so tiny and white. It only has 1,700 students, and today, it is 78 percent white, based on its website.

Green's story is that he tried to get into a writing class and was rejected, but the professor took the time to talk with him, explain the reasoning. Green was trying to sound smart and academic and did not sound authentic. That professor put him on the path to the writing superstar he is today.
So a point about Kenyon is that it was so small that the professor was more prone to give Green individual attention. What I see that most elite students are looking for is status, status, status.

But the thing about status is that it's just tacky. Right? If someone name drops he went to Yale, that's lame. Right? If someone drives a Mercedes and does the same thing, that's lame. Right?

I've learned that the folks obsessed with the status of college brand names and car brand names are stuck in small thinking — especially when we're talking undergraduate degrees. Bruni's book is chockfull of excellent stories and tidbits, and another memorable scene had a mom who said this:

"It's like we're mass-producing robots posing as kids. ... They have no space to be kids. They're not feeling that the work they're doing is their own. They're succeeding, but it's not coming from within. And they're having a lot of psychological problems because of it: obsessive-compulsive disorder, freaking out because they're not perfect."

That quote came from a mom in New York City whose son was denied admittance into a prestigious preschool.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Education is an exercise in freedom

Fareed Zakaria. Holy moley. What a guy!

Not only is he a famous host on CNN, but he wrote an accessible and important book in 2015 called In Defense of a Liberal Education. Zakaria argues that our world needs students to follow a liberal-arts path now more than ever. I say, "Fareed, you are correct, sir. I couldn't agree with you more!"

Remember that, from yesterday's post about Excellent Sheep, liberal arts is often misinterpreted. It's not "liberal," and it's not just "arts." Some people mischaracterize liberal arts as painting or sculpture or something that has no market value in the "real world."

No, no, liberal arts encompasses a degree that is non-vocational. So while the humanities, literature and philosophy are a part of it, so are the sciences and social sciences. Yes, biology, chemistry and economics are all a part of it.

Zakaria has seen the same statistics as William Deresiewicz from Excellent Sheep. Liberal arts majors are majorly declining. Because the cost of college has gotten so high and student loans have gone bonkers, students feel as if they need a path out of debt ASAP and must major in business, nursing or something that is an obvious career path. I understand students' motivation. But is this the society we want?
A better way to see the situation could be the following. In a technologically driven world, in which production and the work place are constantly changing, a liberal arts education is more important because it will develop the individual more and give him/her a stronger perspective than somebody else who majored in, say, business.

It is more important now than ever to pursue knowledge, to understand how to learn and re-learn, and a liberal arts degree likely will be more valuable in the 21st century workplace in the longterm.

We need diversity in the workplace. And diversity does not just include gender and race. We need diversity in education. We need diversity of knowledge, creativity, clarity in writing, depth of thinking and more. Because of technology, we need these human skills more than ever, and I predict the 21st century workforce will demand it. Yet the importance of the liberal arts does not have to be part of an either-or debate.

In recent years, majors in English and history have vastly declined. Even President Obama once said that a technical training degree would be more valuable than one in art history. Obviously, our society has put a dollar amount on college degrees. Is that the right thing to do?

I say that education is so important that we should not put a dollar amount on it, but understand that to truly be educated is priceless. I'm not advocating overpaying for a college by any means.

No, no, it's the opposite. I fear that our society has lost its values. By charging so much for college educations, ironically, true education has been undervalued.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Ivy Leaguers are excellent ... sheep

Over the past 30 years, it's been shocking to see the shift of college majors. It has been a "major shift" to business and finance, especially in the Ivy League.

In fact, the most popular major nationwide now is business and management, which is more than double as popular as second-place nursing. This also does not count finance and accounting, which is ranked eighth.

William Deresiewicz was alarmed by the bombardment of business majors and what he witnessed teaching at Yale. So he put together a manifesto on the mindless pursuit of vocational training in the Ivy League in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014).

Deresiewicz discovered that so many students are all doing the same thing. They're sheep. Excellent sheep. The business and finance majors have overtaken the Ivy League, and this calls into question the point of education and how this affects American culture.

Less than 3 percent of college students are English majors today. Liberal arts majors are waning, and, quite frankly, some see college as mere vocational training. I certainly don't.

Liberal arts is often misinterpreted as actually "liberal." That's wrong. The best definition is "non-vocational." So nursing, business, communications and obvious career-path jobs are not under the liberal-arts umbrella. The biggest misnomer of liberal arts is that it is only the humanities. That also is false.

Liberal arts encompasses the sciences, including physics, chemistry and biology, and the social sciences, including psychology, sociology and economics. To me, these fields can be more than applicable to the business world and tech world. I wholeheartedly agree with Deresiewiz, that our country would be better served with more diversity in education.
Unfortunately, what Deresiewicz saw at Yale is that so many college students don't truly get educated with a depth of knowledge or even the tools to understand and create knowledge. They bust their butts creating a transcript to get into an Ivy. They take accelerated courses, do impressive things in the name of admittance and feel as if they are owed for all they did to get into an Ivy. The education falls to the wayside; their appearance on campus is just a steppingstone to a job in the financial world.

I come from a perspective that believes diversity is a strength, but I worry for corporations and businesses that are only full of business majors. While I understand that certain occupations and corporations must look for business degrees, does it actually help these students to devote their undergraduate degrees to business, when there are so many important pursuits out there?

Especially at the Ivy League, where we have elite students, is that the best way for them to develop and explore their education?

College used to be a place of discovery, new ideas and, most important, education. Sadly, a lot of it has become about vocational training, and "silly" pursuits, like what it means to be human, economics and chemistry, is being left behind. Ugh, I for one, do not like the state of affairs reported in Excellent Sheep, but I appreciate Deresiewicz for reporting it.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Punishment creates multiple victims

One subtle thing about schools that I like is that the staffs typically span all ages. We have Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and age disparity that is actually refreshing.

However, one problem with older populations is that they have a harder time understanding change and often times, fall into habits or ideas from yesteryear.

I bring this up because many educators call for old-school discipline of suspensions and punishment when a problem arises. We have the data, and we know that this type of discipline does not work. Yet here we go again with a discipline song and dance that continues to punish mostly boys of color.

In Victor Rios' 2011 book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, we see the astounding statistics of how these boys are systemically treated as well as personal narratives that show this in action.

Rios' personal story is captivating as he grew up in Oakland, dropped out of school in eighth grade and ended up in juvenile hall at age 15. He soon got his stuff together and eventually got a PhD from Berkeley and now is a professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Right off the bat, Rios will tell you that the entire framing of "at-risk" youth and "at-risk" neighborhoods is way off. In fact, he vehemently opposes that terminology because it sets up youth for risk. To me, it also puts some sort of blame on the youth, and that it is not all what is happening. Looking at the big picture, these so-called at-risk youth are the victims of what Rios calls "The Youth Control Complex."
The Youth Control Complex is the combination of the schools and prisons that work hand-in-hand to send black and Latino boys to prison and hardly have any hope. I would add that since many of the educators in school don't understand this and/or are culturally irrelevant, they become unknowing foot soldiers of perpetuating this horrific system.

Since 70 percent of the teachers in the United States are white women, there is an excellent chance that people of color are "taught" by white women who are blind to the Youth Control Complex. In addition, just like the prisons, there is a charter school movement that is perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline — for corporate profit.

Through it all, perhaps the best point that Rios makes is that we've had a far off Cultural Misframing of what is happening in poor neighborhoods that are black and Latino. Perhaps I'm crazy to think that schools exist to help young people. However, when I have studied and even seen first hand the treatment of "at-promise" youth, I see that the words and approach often criminalizes the kid at the first opportunity.

I had a deep idea the other day. The United States has long been a champion of the individual, the superhero, the myth that "anyone can do anything." But wonder if that whole individualistic view is wrong.

Wonder if we are all one organism, rich or poor, black or white, female or male, etc. When we punish part of the organism, we are punishing all of us. That's why I know that the school-to-prison pipeline needs resources to reform and more attention ASAP. The for-profit prison system needs to stop as well as our mistreatment of Latino and black boys.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Race fosters fear, anger and denial

Being a white male, I had the privilege, and ignorance, to not think much about race for a lot of my life. My neighborhood growing up was 100 percent white, and my high school was about 95 percent white. Race? Eh, who needs to talk about it?

Well, as I became more educated, I understood how race is — hello — a major component of the United States' power structure and history. I used to think racism was about bad apples who had hate in their hearts. I eventually realized that racism is embedded in many of our country's institutions.

When it comes to schools, it is obvious to me that racism is on overt and covert display. First off, a lot of students of color do not have access to as many of the stronger schools. Then, at schools, race can be denied or pretended to not be important by white people.

In Beverly Daniel Tatum's masterpiece Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations on Race, she examines racial identity and the systems in place in schools that hurt minorities. Tatum also looks at candid discussion and research on race in the 2017 20th anniversary of the book.
This work helped me adjust my attitude, words and behavior toward race in a positive way, and I believe it will can have that effect on any white person not familiar with the book.

The main takeaway for me is that it's healthy, and necessary, to embrace conversations on race. It reaffirms the idea of being racially blind is stupid. I believe we should strive for empathy, celebrate ethnic differences and as a white guy, stop proving to others I'm not racist. I also am more aware of racial dynamics in groups and at school.

I teach at a school that is about 5 percent white and is full of many ethnicities with Asian leading the way, following by Latino. Just because I'm at a diverse school doesn't mean there are no race issues to consider.

I can't stand "post-racial" thinking. Ooh, Abraham Lincoln "freed the slaves," so racism is gone. Or, the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, so racism was over. Or better yet, Obama was elected president, so there must not be racism any more.

One of the incredible things about Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? is that race-talk-stoppers that white people often use has ended with me. I've learned to steer the conversation, embrace, and sometimes promote, race talk.

So many people experience fear, anger and denial about racism, especially in our schools, and the least we can do is to keep the dialogue going and hope that collective social progress occurs.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Homework teaches ... nothing, really

Just last week, I read a Q & A in the Long Beach Post with longtime Long Beach Unified School District superintendent Chris Steinhauser. The headline was "Chris Steinhauser is sorry he gave your kid so much homework."

Much more is in the Q & A than that tidbit, but Steinhauser does point out that there is no evidence that homework works. "It's one of those old urban myths," he said.

Thank you!

I've been barking my first-hand experience about how homework doesn't work for years to anyone who will listen, and it was nice to see the Sup tell the truth. As for well-researched books that build on a similar thesis, I recommend The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006) by Alfie Kohn.

It's disheartening to me that our children are still bombarded by homework yet often escape our schools with little skills or education that sticks. The kids are forced to do a compliance dance that doesn't work for anyone who truly wants to be educated. Instead, they do this homework stuff and play short-term memory games.

Now, I know that there are popular arguments out there in favor of homework. In Kohn's book, he seriously considers them and proves why they don't work. I find the best argument in favor of homework to be that repeated practice is necessary in certain subjects, such as math, and there just isn't time for that in class.

First of all, where is the time going? Is it all direct instruction? Then, the next point is that for a typical class, students' skills will be all over the map with homework. Typically, the homework will be too easy or too difficult. To have "sweet zone" homework that is at the exact level for the student mathematically will not happen.
Alfie Kohn is a progressive thinker and educator. Like Jonathan Kozol, he is a hero to me. He's done extensive work on the trouble with standardized testing, grades and rewards, discipline woes and traditional schooling. I love his stuff.

Among traditional teachers, I have long learned to "slow my roll" with them. Some have the capacity to reflect. Some do not. Good school leaders have the skills to build that capacity.

At the end of the day, I still believe in our public schools, and, of course, there are some elite private schools out there that are progressive and excellent. The one thing all good schools tend to do is not assign homework. They understand that the real work is done in classrooms. It's easier to learn in a room of 30 than a room of one.

So I urge any teacher who still thinks homework is a worthwhile part of learning to read The Homework Myth. I also give a shoutout to any teacher who eschews homework and busts his/her butt in the classroom. We need more like you.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Kozol reminds us of love in the classroom

Hero. That's the best way to say it.

Jonathan Kozol is a hero of social progress, truth and education, and if you happen to be unacquainted with him, please go check out his stuff.

I can think of no better person to kick off the education category of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend than Kozol because of his lifetime commitment to social progress, honesty and education. Plus, today happens to be his 83rd birthday.

Happy birthday, Mr. Kozol! You are an inspiration, and I love the work you have given us.

In my mind, Kozol's name is the biggest in education. I know that many people mention John Dewey, who passed away in 1952, and Jean Piaget, who died in 1980, as key progressive educators. But, heck, Kozol is still alive, and his stuff hits home with me.

Kozol is most known for Death at an Early Age (1967), Savage Inequalities (1991) and The Shame of a Nation (2005), which look at embedded racism in the educational system and major disparities in funding among schools in different neighborhoods. Those are worth a read, but of all of his books, I first recommend Letters to a Young Teacher (2007), especially to anyone in the education profession.
When done correctly, teaching is a beautiful and artistic profession. In his book, Kozol reminds a fictional teacher "Francesca" of this and what I, too, believe is the main reason why a teacher should teach — love. To be effective, you got to love yourself, love the kids and love building trusting relationships.

The tone of Letters to a Young Teacher is so soft and warm that it's hard not to connect to it and find proper perspective as an educator. While it's true that many systems in the educational world could be improved, a teacher needs to keep the right perspective in order to be effective and fulfilled.

Kozol does not shy away from the over-importance placed on testing, the politics of education and a lot of things that need improvement. But through it all, the book is a humanistic pro-teaching, pro-education, pro-public school treatise.

In my 12th year as a public-school secondary teacher, I am revived and love my profession now more than ever. I do have an administrator credential and might go that route one day, but it would be hard for me to leave the classroom, where I like to think we engage in magic each day. Magic is not supernatural; it is tapping into our best selves. I like to think we do that daily.

I believe kids need proper teachers more than ever as parents find themselves overworked, on their screens too much and maybe even overweight. It can be a punishing economic world out there, and I see that kids need genuine support. Teachers need support, too, and Kozol's words do help.