Monday, June 29, 2015

Your 98 cents of change

Last week ended with a rather surprising string of news stories. Some commentators in the news have pointed to one or another of these apparently unconnected events as significant turning points in America's history. That may be true. But they offer me chances to reflect on issues of national concern that I have been concerned about too, and in some cases issues on which I have changed my mind. Let's get started:

The groundswell of opinion against display of the Confederate Battle Flag

To me, it's all about context. Unfortunately some individuals espousing hatred have hijacked that symbol as a tool of intimidation. In particular, this occurred in the 1880s and 1890s as well as the 1950s and 1960s. In the latter of these periods, it was also a symbol for defiance of federal authority. Again, it's all about context. Since it has been prominently displayed in those contexts since 1865, it's display should be limited. Governor Haley of South Carolina is right to ask her state's legislature to remove it from the capitol grounds. Those are the grounds of all the people. A symbol used to instill fear and hatred shouldn't fly over the grounds of all citizens.

Yet if you choose to fly it over your own house, I respect the First Amendment's power to grant you that right. And I have no objection to it flying over the graves of Confederate war dead or at a memorial at Gettysburg or Vicksburg or anywhere else where men fought and died under that flag.

It's about context. I saw a recent Facebook post claiming that a Confederate flag over Gettysburg is as improper as a swastika over Normandy. To me that's a false comparison on too many levels.

One weird story that struck me a bit speechless: a Doylestown area car collector has decided not to display his "General Lee" at car shows this summer. Hmmm. Context tells me that the display of that on a TV show of the late 1970s is a different thing than the waving of that banner by Klansmen in the 1960s. But I wonder if it's a sign of racial intolerance that I as a white boy in the northern suburbs could afford to overlook.

The Supreme Court's Decision on Gay Marriage

It was the right decision. Quite some time ago I came to the point of view that the 14th Amendment couldn't permit the denial of marriage rights to same sex couples. Simultaneously, I've come to better know friends who are gay and really can't stand the idea of denying them the joy I know in my own marriage.

This remains, though, the one great issue on which my religious faith hasn't helped me make up my mind. Biblical messages on it are ambivalent and ambiguous. I understand, though don't necessarily agree, with individuals who find spiritual reasons to object to same-sex marriage. And I think motivations beyond mere bigotry allow some Christians to believe same-sex marriage defies a Christian definition of marriage. This is the one issue on which my understanding of the Constitution and rights in a more generic sense trumps my spiritual compass.

The Supreme Court's Decision on Obamacare

The Court made the right call. And in doing so, they made me more disgusted with the Republicans (my party, by the way) than I expected. For six years, the Republicans have opposed the Affordable Healthcare Act. They've pushed for its repeal. They've failed to offer a reasonable alternative. In the end, they hoped that a technicality from some lawsuit could overturn it. It didn't play out. These were six wasted years, years in which alternatives could have been offered, alternatives that supersede the call for "repeal and refund."

The ACA is a bad law. But I would contend that health care is so problematic it defies almost any law. It may just be time to call health care a public good, a merit good, and make it taxpayer funded. Too many externalities. Too many perverse incentives. By accident, the ACA may be creating a better (or at least less broken) status quo. Shame on the Republicans for hoping for a loophole.

The Referendum on Obama's Legacy

A few weeks ago a columnist pointed to how the two above-referenced news stories as well as the Pacific Trade Pact and opined that they would settle Obama's legacy. Combine that with his response to the Charleston murders, and the blunt acknowledgment that he's a lame duck and I think we have a good prediction about what historians twenty-seven years hence will be saying.

On domestic issues: not too bad.
On foreign issues: not too good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


In the past few weeks, I've heard a few sermons that really pushed me to think. Namely:

My friend, Dane, gave a sermon in which he related the story of his son's recent birth. He talked of the anxiety he felt the moment his son arrived, anxiety borne from knowing that there was now a second child to care for and the lifetime of decisions and guidance he would now be supplying. Dane talked, though, of how it seemed God spoke to him in his anxiety, reassuring him by saying relax, he's My son, too. It's helpful perspective: not just with my own children but with the children of other parents I work with daily. When they test my temper and patience, I need to remember that their His children, too.

Recently our senior pastor addressed the tragedy in South Carolina. He was rather pointed, pointed to the extent I felt a little uncomfortable. Still, I'm glad that he said what he said: that whites should pray for God's forgiveness of the sin of white supremacy. As he put it, the murderous act was an unstable act but one that sat atop a very stable foundation of racism, exclusivity, fear of "the other." Though I live hundreds of miles away from that crime, it's necessary for me to think of how I might, through action or inaction, contribute in some small way to the foundations atop which that crime could exist.

A few weeks back, our senior pastor challenged us to write obituaries for ourselves. His point was to get us to consider how full and meaningful we have been, and how we want that obituary to look when we do in fact die. And to that end, I think I'll pen one now. I know that might seem stark, but it's a though exercise. A spiritual exercise. In that spirit, I write:

Christopher (Chris) L. Johnson of Lansdale died yesterday of injuries from an accident. He was 39. 

Mr. Johnson was born to Eugene E. and Betty J. (Smith) Johnson of Elverson, Pennsylvania where he grew up. He graduated from Owen J. Roberts High School in 1994 where he had a reputation for being an active student. Chris later went on to earn Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Gettysburg College and Villanova University, respectively. At Gettysburg Chris played the trombone and it was in the music program there that he met his eventual wife, Sherry D. (Stevens) Johnson. He cultivated a keen interest in history during those years, an interest that led him into a career teaching. Mr. Johnson had just finished his seventeenth year teaching in the Central Bucks School District, where he was known for his energetic history and economics classes as well as his friendly demeanor in the hallways. 

Chris married Sherry D. (Stevens) Johnson in 1999 and with her was a parent to two children, Samuel E., 9, and Caroline M., 7. He took great joy in his family and looked forward to weekend and summer trips throughout Pennsylvania, the U.S., and Canada. His family are members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale where all are involved in the music ministry of the congregation.

Surviving Chris is his loving wife and two children, his parents, his brother, Matthew S. Johnson, 38, of Lansdale, his sister Kendra J. (Johnson) Cook, 32, of Sinking Spring, his grandmother, Blanche (Shortlege) Smith, of McConnellsburg, several aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces. He also leaves behind many friends from his childhood, his neighborhood, and the school where he taught.

Services will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church where Chris's remains will be interred.  

Wow. That's stark. But it's where I am right now. I think it's pretty honest. My goal, by the way, is to live until I'm 100. So, I've got 61 years to make my life story more compelling.

As it is, though, it's a good story. Writing it has forced me to wonder what impact I'm having as a dad, husband, teacher, colleague, and friend. I think I'm having an impact. But would it get into my obituary? Unsure.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Juking the Stats

In this age of intense testing, I've so often thought of the line uttered over and over again in The Wire about "juking the stats" (don't worry, this clip is safe). NPR today ran a story that articulated wonderfully many of the frustrations I have wrestled with over the past decade or so. I encourage you to read or listen to their piece. In it, the dig into some of the less attractive trends at work behind the ever-climbing rate at which high schoolers are graduating.

Perhaps this journalism is evidence that the tide of popular opinion regarding standardized testing is starting to turn. Are we more broadly coming to question the costs of the testing culture that has gripped U.S. schools? Are we starting to see that data doesn't tell the whole story of educating children? Journalism like this, and the small bits of furor opening up here and there over opting out of state tests are enough to suggest that, yes, maybe the data-driven emphasis on tests is starting to wane in power.

I teach at a school that, four years ago, graduated its first ever class with a perfect graduation rate. At the time it seemed like an accomplishment. Many kids and even more adults worked hard to make that possible. I was one of those adults (that happened to be a year in which my schedule was exclusively teaching seniors). But over the next few years, that accomplishment turned into an expectation. Now, it may as well be an entitlement.

At the time, in the spring of 2011, I overlooked a realization that I've come to appreciate: to expect 100% of adolescents to do anything is naive and counterproductive. They're adolescents. Adolescence is messy.

But sometimes in that messiness, they're ridiculously clear-headed. What one student learned by trying to balance the U.S. budget. 
It's a time of overlapping and conflicting priorities. It's a time of great change and a growing ability to handle that change. By the way, a growing ability to handle change implies that there is varying inability to handle change.

There's a fascinating parable in here about steel quotas and Stalin's Five-Year Plans that I cannot help but think when I contemplate the uglier aspects of today's testing culture. 

Attainment of an unrealistic goal encourages unethical behavior. Attainment of an unrealistic goal creates fertile ground for perverse incentives. Attainment of an unrealistic goal can stunt individualism.

But I don't think unethical behavior is typical in my profession. I work as part of an army of people who genuinely care for kids. Caring for kids can unintentionally lead us to do things that stunt their growth.

In some ways the problems NPR points out resemble concerns people have about the "everybody-wins-a-trophy" mentality that some say persist with sports and other competitions. I don't necessarily think that such an impulse is at play here. The desire to award everybody is driven by care for a child's feelings. This push toward 100% graduation is motivated by a desire to set kids up for success.

That doesn't mean it's right.

A fundamental principle of working with kids is to provide options. Don't make ultimatums. Offer an option A and option B. Help highlight the pros and cons of each. Sell A over B. But ultimately let the kid choose. And be as comfortable as possible when their choice disappoints.

In today's culture, I've seen the adults - teachers, administrators, boards, parents - take the kids right to choose away. A few years ago it was a movement that the students must pass a given test. That's only gotten louder. That sentiment has morphed into every student must graduate.

And the day we say must is the day the adults own the problem. And in owning the problem, we rob the kids of a chance to choose their path.

I love working with kids. It's hard for me to imagine leaving the classroom despite being there 17 years. On a daily basis I work with very interesting adults-in-training. They might not surprise me daily, but they do surprise me weekly. For instance, I can't wait to see the finished product of the Macroeconomic chess set a group of my colleagues' students are making with a 3D printer.

I'm hopeful that tomorrow another kid will impress me the way a shy 10th grade girl did in delivering a solid presentation on a harder-than-seems topic. And I say this despite the fact that behaviors today disappointed me (it's June 10 . . . a week of school remains, shenanigans were abundant today . . . 1:00 to 1:10 was a variety show of obnoxious acts).

A variety show of obnoxious acts? Too harsh. No, I'm just working with adolescents. And I love doing so. And I want to continue working with them in such a way that we can help them grow, not keep them as kids.