A language lesson from the dead

Headline-Induced Whiplash

Last week this headline hijacked my attention:

“Southlake school leader tells teachers to balance Holocaust books with ‘opposing’ views.”


Apart from the stunning ignorance, and the moral and ethical problems with the statement, the fact that this mandate came from a school district director of curriculum – who was not immediately fired for saying it – reveals a critical feature/bug in the hierarchical power structure of education.

Open-Source Learning shifts the balance and brings learning relationships out into the sunlight.

In Open-Source Learning, the learner is at the top of the org chart. Teachers (lead learners) and parents support their efforts. Site and district administrators (stewards) maintain learning resources and environments.

In Open-Source Learning, life is our interdisciplinary curriculum. We remix our interests into learner-centered, interdisciplinary exploration designed for value, interdependence, and hope. Our vision is eternal, our mission changes when we reach a benchmark, and our KPIs flex to meet needs.

When I saw this story, I felt a need to respond. That’s Part I, below.

Part II is an illustration of how teachers can meaningfully integrate current events – including politics – into their state/institution-approved curriculum, in the form of a blog post I published for an Open-Source Learning high school English course in 2017. The post was noted on a few popular websites, including BoingBoing (thanks, Cory Doctorow!), and the class followed up by meeting with Senator Lynch online.

In the words of Thomas Mann, “Everything is politics.” It is disingenuous to suggest that teachers should avoid politics or stay silent about events and issues that are wildly inappropriate and affect us all.

The important thing is to resist imposing a world view on learners, so that they can develop their own capacities for gathering, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information. (In that spirit, you’re welcome to Contact Me and let me know what you think of what I write, this week and every week.)


Good Trouble

Generations of teachers have been told: Be neutral. Stay objective. Stick to the approved curriculum script and keep your politics to yourself.

However, as Paolo Friere put it, “There is no such thing as a neutral education process.”

Curriculum is not neutral. The “approved” content you see is someone’s idea of what’s worth teaching. Only a select few people get to weigh in on these decisions, and they hardly ever support teaching content with which they personally disagree. Therefore, school curriculum is a map of hierarchical, political, and financial power in our culture.

That administrator who told teachers to teach opposing views of the Holocaust – as if there were such a thing – was not being neutral or fair. She was apparently interpreting a recently passed Texas Senate bill that states, “A teacher who chooses to discuss a topic (described in the previous section of the bill as ‘a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs’) shall, to the best of the teachers ability, strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

The Texas Senate bill was an amended form of a Texas house bill. The House bill included requirements to teach the achievements of “marginalized populations,” and it also stated that public school educators must teach “the history of white supremacy” including slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and ways in which the white supremacist hate group was “morally wrong.”

But in the Senate bill, those agenda items were removed.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.

More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” -Primo Levi

History says we’ve been down this road before, and it is disastrous. Whatever else they discover, graduates of K-12 schools should have a basic, shared understanding of verifiable scientific and historical facts, and a basic, shared understanding of reasoning and logical fallacies. This is a key component of Civic Fitness.

Thinking Is Not Just About You

Too many value propositions in schools focus on the benefit to the individual student. Wrong. We learn whether we’re in school or not. You’re not in school for you – you’re there for the rest of us.

Whether you’re a teacher or any other sentient, carbon-based life form, you are part of multiple interdependent systems. You matter. You make a difference in your family, your community, and your natural habitat.

Since you don’t choose all the systems in which you participate, and we don’t choose you either, we all owe it to each other to be well-informed and thoughtful in our reasoning. These ideas are the basis for our society and our system of government. Plato was clear about the responsibilities of the individual to The Republic nearly 2400 years ago.

To the people who don’t like logic, republics, or Plato: I’m just the messenger. Reality doesn’t compromise or care what we think of it.

In reality, many issues and events do not feature “very fine people on both sides.” Much of the time, reality presents us with one-sided, incontrovertible truths that we ignore at our own peril. For example, gravity is neither questionable nor controversial; if you want to make a very brief spectacle of yourself, find a tall building and prove everyone wrong. You get exactly one chance to be a legend. (The saddest thing about those last two sentences is that if you do pull a Kyrie Irving, it’s still not just about you. Some poor witness will be traumatized for life by your foolishness. Someone will have to clean up your mess.)

Our interdependent world simply isn’t big enough for every selfish, stubborn person to go off and play in their own sandbox. The conspiracy theorists, the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, the racists and sexists, they inflict costs on everyone. We spend irrevocable time and energy paying attention, we endure pointless conflict and fractured relationships, and we pay higher group health insurance premiums. In the worst cases, we get sick, we can’t find a vacant hospital bed, and we die.

Each of us has an obligation to seek out information, even (especially!) when it challenges our understanding. My son just wrote an essay comparing the Covid-19 pandemic with the Spanish Flu. He began with the famous George Santayana line: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I first read that sentence when I was about his age; it was the epigraph to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. When I looked up and saw that intimidating black book on my grandmother’s bookshelf, I was shocked: Why would she have anything in her apartment with a swastika on it?

Never forget.

A Lesson From the Dead

My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. I grew up listening to her stories about my mom’s side of the family from that era – about getting out just in time, about converting to Catholicism, about being denied entry to America and going to live in England or Africa. About the camps. About the ones who died.

We tell stories of the dead to keep them alive. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel put it this way: “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

It’s mid-October. In the natural world of the northern hemisphere, this is the season when things die. It is said that this is the time when the veil between the spiritual world and the physical world is thin. Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching.

We just brought the box in from the garage to start setting up our ofrenda. Here’s what it looked like last year:


Thinning the Veil

Open-Source Learning also thins the veil between worlds – the world of school and the real world. Learners seek out information and connect with the experts they respect. The curriculum becomes a lens through which we examine our world and apply what we learn to help us understand and thrive.

Being open also means that our learning is open to the world— people and events matter to us and influence our even shift our thinking. Today’s students have to deal with an internet-enabled politics that drives people apart and pits them against each other.

The presidential election of 2016 directly and adversely affected my students. Their parents were fired from their jobs and deported. Their cousins were caged at the border.

Teaching and learning in a state of denial for the sake of “neutral” was not an option.


Not My Shitgibbon

(Or, “When the grown-ups go batshit crazy, K-12 students learn about language and democracy.”)

[Originally published 14Feb2017 on Dr. Preston’s English Language & Composition 2016-2017]

[credit: many thanks to Edel Rodriguez for the inspired Der Spiegel cover art.]

It’s a great time for the English language.

Sometimes we just don’t have the right tool for the job for expressing ourselves. I’m a big fan of building vocabulary, but there are moments when no existing word accurately conveys our idea.  Maybe it’s because we’re trying to describe something new in the world. Or we need cathartic release and a laugh at the same time. Sometimes the available choices just don’t grab or persuade our audience.

That’s when we innovate.* (*make stuff up.) Scholars estimate that Shakespeare used less than 18,000 words — and that he originated approximately one out of every ten. We add words to our language all the time. Today the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 600,000 words.

Some new words are necessary because they describe something that didn’t previously exist (think Internet, which derived from inter-networking, according to TCP/IP architect Bob Kahn at 59:35 in this video). Other words that we adopt have a ring to them or capture our feeling in a familiar way. Why else would Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” make it into the Oxford English Dictionary?

However, in spite of what some of your teachers have told you, you can’t just “use your own words” — no one else would understand what you’re saying. The words we create and use are currency. Just like money, words represent symbolic agreements about value depending on what they give to our readers and listeners.

As you may remember from your days on the elementary school playground and last semester’s analysis of the ad hominem fallacy, calling people names is neither personally appealing or especially effective in persuasion and argumentation. They are often a last resort for people who have run out of ideas and are desperate to say something.

These days, desperate times are calling for increasingly desperate rhetorical measures.

Which brings us to “The Surprising Rise of the Shitgibbon.”

Shortly after he was elected, President Donald Trump offered to destroy the career of a Texas legislator who opposed civil asset forfeiture. (Civil asset forfeiture is when law enforcement officials can take your money and your property without even charging you with a crime, much less getting a guilty verdict in a court of law.)

Enter Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach.

Now, normally, citizens of the republic — including me — would expect more decorum from an elected official, even if that official was standing up to a bully. But these days you have to crane your neck and look in America’s rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of normal, lying there in the middle of the road next to truth and integrity, bleeding out on the asphalt.  There is nothing normal about having a president talk about destroying a legislator’s career, or banning Muslims from entering the country, or grabbing women.  There is nothing normal about that president appointing a Secretary of Education who knows NOTHING about public education and thinks we should have guns in school to protect us from grizzly bears. Uh huh. Grizzly bears.

For those of us who study how we communicate and use language, shitgibbon is a silver lining. It turns out that this word has a history, which you can read more about here. We can learn a lot from a word’s etymology – the study of the origin and development of linguistic forms and words. Etymology provides insight into how culture shapes language and vice versa over time. Check out the Online Etymology Dictionary and look up your favorites.

Shitgibbon also gives us a creative outlet and a path forward. If you’re not able to vote, or participate in a public demonstration, or call your elected officials, or tie up a Trump property phone line, or take any other immediate civic action, you can still find ways to express yourself in words using what you learn from shitgibbon. Taylor Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, builds on Ben Zimmer’s concluding note that, “Metrically speaking, these words are compounds consisting of one element with a single stressed syllable and a second disyllabic element with a trochaic pattern, i.e., stressed-unstressed. As a metrical foot in poetry, the whole stressed-stressed-unstressed pattern is known as antibacchius.” Jones goes on to provide a recipe for making a shitgibbon in two easy steps.

Do it. Remix the concept and post a shitgibbon poem, story, song, nonfiction essay or [?] to your course blog and explain your creative process. And then do more. Your reading audience and your republic await.