Sunday, April 28, 2013

Yes offense

Right now, I need to vent. Sorry if this catches any of you off guard, but there is some stuff I need to say. I'm addressing it to some of you out there but I won't name names. If you feel stung by this venting, then I apologize. No. I don't. I mean what I am about to say.

You are a horrible parent.

Sure, you might be a great person. Sure, you might provide for your family. You might play board games and buy healthful food. But you are horrible because you do one thing that isn't right, fair or good. You make me into the bad guy.

My child came to me this afternoon and asked if I would let her go to an event tonight. I listened and quizzed her on all the necessary things. First, she told me she would be back by midnight. No, I said. That's too late on a school night. I forced her to make sure she had a ride there and back, as provided by an adult, not some teenager who would be filling up the car with friends, blasting the music and driving at 11:30 in an unfamiliar place. Her clothes have to be reasonable and so on. I went down the list of proper obstacles for a responsible parent to set up. Rides were secured. Other local people were going. They would be back by 11PM. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Then I asked "who is throwing this event?" No answer. "Are there going to be adults there monitoring the event?" No answer. "Is there an organization, or people I can call if I have questions? What about if someone gets hurt? Will anyone be stopping some random teenager from bringing alcohol and passing it around? And cigarettes? Or drugs?" No answer, no answer and, you guessed it, no answer. Well, there was a response -- lots of them. They included "but so-and-so is going!" and "This is a known thing -- the town does this every year" and "no one knows a name but they are all ok with it -- there will be families and little kids there and everything." Apparently no one knows who is running it. No one knows anything. Parents everywhere are sending their children off to god knows where to do god knows what and I'm the bad guy when I say "no." How dare all of you not check? How can you send your kids off without asking the questions and being strong enough to demand answers?

So this became a big investigation (though I must say, the child handled my "no" well - she didn't complain but worked harder at getting the necessary information) and by the end of it, I spoke to the police involved and got the answers that, though they don't thrill me at least satisfied me to a minimum level. So ultimately, she is going, but only because we dug and dug and she knew that she wouldn't get what she wanted until we were somewhat informed. But who else said "no" until basic questions were answered? Apparently no one. No one reported that there was a website, or a flyer indicating who is sponsoring it. No one passed around phone numbers for contacts. It is as if everyone just took everyone else's word for it. And what do the kids learn? All the wrong lessons. Except mine, I hope. She learns that "yes" isn't free and that planning is necessary. She learned (I hope) that being responsible isn't optional. I hope she passes that along to some of the other parents who could use the reminder.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What I did at Camp today

I spent the day at a conference for educators -- a very not-me thing to do because it demanded some of the things I despise most, like going places, doing things and talking to people, but I went. I went because it was free, and because it promised me no agenda and I wanted to participate in an event where nothing might happen. The goal was to allow the participants to decide what they wanted to talk about spontaneously and pursue the topics that were most pressing and important. Naturally, I assumed that meant that they would talk about me. In that regard, I was sorely disappointed.

The sessions were interesting because they showed what happens when non-professionals are allowed to drive their own development and ask the questions which really get to them as problematic. I even worked up the guts to lead a session. True to form, I took the chance at a conference focusing on education reform to ask the question "Do we really need educational reform?" My answer was a resounding maybe. Huzzah.

During one of the sessions a question arose about literacy. Ignoring for the moment the question of whether students need a completely new type of literacy which has them demonstrate familiarity with digital media and non-traditional text, the discussion was about the replacing of paper with electronic versions of text. There were many people who thought that the switch was inevitable for reasons ranging from environmentalism to cost to weight. Some said that books will remain because of the Sabbath observant people who can't use electronics on holidays and because of that visceral experience of holding a book. I came at it from another angle. It seems that reading often has to be accidental and electronic reading is rarely that.

When I grew up (in any sense that I did), I read because I was bored. I picked up whatever was lying around -- a book I had read before, a book in the bookshelf that had a pretty cover, the side of the cereal box or a magazine. There was stuff to keep my eyes busy. And as I had precious few friends (and even fewer non-imaginary ones) I had plenty of opportunity to need to keep myself busy. Sure, eventually we had an Atari 2600 and a computer and a television for 15-20 stations, but for the most part, when I ate, or on the Sabbath or when there was just nothing on, I read. I stumbled across books we had in the house like the People's Almanac, The Jump Book, The Whole Earth Catalogue, and the Langston Hughes Reader. I read the newspaper cover to cover, and spent time with National Geographic, Gourmet, Smithsonian, Consumer Reports (and Consumer Review, I think) and others. I rarely sat down with a book I specifically had been aiming to read. I just dove into whatever was around. Sometimes, I opened to a random page. Sometimes, I reread favorite passages and then jumped around when one word or phrase reminded me of something. I bounced between texts finding connections that could never have been intended. I learned to read and find whatever there was to find, even if by accident.

Fast forward to 2004 or so. I was sitting in a graduate education class, bored out of (then hair covered) skull. So I took out my Palm Pilot (the i705 for those of you keeping score at home) and started reading Fight Club which I had downloaded. I moved through page by page but if I wanted to check something on an earlier page, I was out of luck. If I wanted to write in the margin, again, no luck. The reading had to be by appointment and had to be linear. Since then I have thought about reading and watched the electronic texts develop. For all their bells and whistles, they still have to be the objects of the intention to read. You can't pick one up and see what has been left there. Turn it on. Log it in. No accidents. Words are no longer the diversion.

If we want to increase literacy, we have to value spontaneous and unintended reading. Yes, there is a time and place for intentional and close reading (in the same way that writing should mostly be intentional and measured but there is a time and place for spontaneous and unintended writing). We have to increase the chances of happy accidents by leaving the newspaper around, buy Dr. Bronner's soaps, writing them letters long-hand, or stacking books around the house in the hopes that, in a moment of boredom and desperation, children will pick them up instead of a smartphone.

Or just make them read my blog. That works.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Double Oh No. License Restored

I'd like to reflect (in a level headed fashion) about the events recently surrounding my license suspension. I'm not going to rant. I'm not going to rave or foam at the mouth. I'm just going to list some of the moments that I will remember. And I'm starting with the court appearance.

1. The prosecutor called numbers 1-40 to discuss their cases before the judge showed up. I was number 66.

2. The court was unaware that my number was 66 even though they read my name and I entered a Not Guilty plea when they said "Number 66?"

3. When they finally realized that I was number 66, the nice police officer told me that the prosecutor was willing to demand only the initial ticket fee of $100 and ignore the late fees. When we objected on the grounds that other tickets were being reduced and that the entire case was prejudiced against us by not having been dealt with 2 years ago, increased slightly and we were all asked to leave the court room.

4. The heated exchange with the police officer continued with his cautioning us not to claim that the ticket had never been given or issued in error. He also said that it might be the case that we received the ticket and simply chose to ignore it.

5. We explained that we had received no notice until 2 years after the fact. He said "oh" and went back into the court. He returned and said that we were mailed a reminder in March of 2011. We said that we weren't. We showed him the notices we had received. He said "oh" and went back inside.

6. The prosecutor came out thinking that court was over and saw us sitting there. The cop had disappeared. Poof. No cop.

7. She went over material with us and told us that we probably frequently break parking laws and we are annoyed that we got caught. She also informed us that snow emergency parking restrictions are not for aesthetic reasons. We informed her that I am neurotic and tend to move my car off the street if the weatherman has dandruff. She didn't believe us. Julie invoked the American flag and "teach your children" and produced a tear or two. I reminded her that we had contacted the court twice for a court date and had been rebuffed. She ultimately decided to dismiss the whole durned thing.

8. The judge couldn't figure any of this out and couldn't believe that we got neither the ticket (which the prosecutor admitted could have happened) nor the first "reminder". I told him that I had responded to the other reminders but the computer didn't give me a court date so maybe computers aren't so perfect. He shrugged his shoulders and told the clerk to give me a paper indicating that the whole things was dismissed.

9. To restore a license (even one suspended in error) can be done online for $100, and it take 7-10 days. Julie sid that she would drive me to the DMV in Lodi instead. We went, and I explained that there was a mistake and my license shouldn't have been suspended. "Oh" the woman said, in that case, I need to go to the DMV in Wayne, not Lodi.

10. At Wayne, I was told that I needed a letter from the court explaining the mistake in order to ignore the restoration fee. I told the woman I never got a letter, just a paper indicating that he whole thing had been dismissed. "Oh" she said. Then she said that I needed a letter from the court explaining the mistake in order to ignore the restoration fee. "Oh," I said.

11. Taking another day to go back to court, trying to explain to the cop, prosecutor and judge that I was cleared completely and that they made the mistake (three people who believe that I am innocent until proven guilty except that I'm guilty already, and a liar and a scofflaw) and put it on paper wasn't going to happen. If it did, I would have to take another day to go back to Wayne.

12. I gave her my credit card and smiled as I signed. My license was restored. I let Julie drive me back to work because I didn't want to risk the Irony Police.

So a lesson for all you kids out there: The judicial system is messed up, the DMV system is messed up, the computers are messed up, the people are messed up. Institutionalized bullying and extortion are the norm and why can't I get a decent 4G signal in Wayne?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A professionally informed, but unpopular viewpoint

There is a news story going around these days and it has me thinking so I'd like to take a moment or three and work through it here. If you are uninterested in current events then move on. I don't need your pity. I like it but don't need it.

A teacher in New York is on the verge of getting fired because he asked his students to write an essay based on propaganda and anti-semitic content. His assignment was to have students see argument from an unfamiliar and, yes, uncomfortable point of view and yet, follow proper rhetorical practice and employ mode of logic in order to prove a point.

I see this from a few different sides as I do most things, but, for once in my life, I feel like I have actual expertise here so my opinion might actually be, I don't know, "good."

I'm a rabbi. I'm a proponent of the 1st amendment. I am a high school English teacher. I'm like the perfect storm of ideas for this situation. So I'm wading in, baby.

As a Jew, and one who has experienced modern anti-semitism, I fear a next generation of hatred. The scourge of Nazism, classical and neo (in all its forms) threatens progress and coexistence and leads people into violence. In a word or a few, I don't like it. Mandating that students work through Nazi content forces them to be exposed to ideas which might take hold in the weak minded and appear reasonable, and influence future behavior. Students can't always separate fact from lies, even when told what is "truth" by the teacher. So to ask students to think like a Nazi sympathizer is a problem -- it opens the accuser's mouth, giving those who are looking for a way to hate, a way to hate.

But as a teacher, I know the value of asking students to do something difficult -- to confront established norms of thought and work beyond them. There is no challenge for a student to write from a perspective he holds; critical thinking comes from asking students to work away from what they know. I often create essay topics and demand that students argue the unpopular side. Sure, I often keep the topics based in literature, but I have been known to dabble in mass culture. I can see asking students to argue FOR gun control and then argue AGAINST it. I can understand that if a student already knows the issues and his feelings, he will not be forced to incorporate research because he will write from his knowledge base.

I also know that, especially in the safe and relatively sheltered environment of a classroom, we should be allowing students to explore even unpopular ideas. If we don't, we create a situation where they never confront the popular view and never get a nuanced, guided tour through contrary ideas. When they do then see opposing views in real life, they will be unprepared to see themes, spot underlying trends or critique methodologies. The assignment, in that light, is actually a really good one. Sounds crazy to say, but it demands real reading comprehension, suspension of preconceived notions, application of skills and real analysis. Isn't this just what we want from students?

Yes, it is distasteful. Yes, it is insensitive, I guess (but only if it is done poorly and without context or explanation). But it is not automatically a problem any more than asking students to argue the unpopular side of any historical or philosophical situation. Arguing how immorality can be defended rationally is, to my mind, sound pedagogy both on the level of the thought exercise and the development of rhetorical awareness and skill. Having students write a newspaper article which would be suited to a conservative outlet and then a liberal one will make students more aware of bias and how it is couched in apparently neutral language. It makes students masters of thinking and expression, not just robots slavishly accepting a dominant paradigm without understanding that other points of view can mask themselves as convincing in the sheep's clothing of the "reasonable."

So will I give that particular assignment? No. Will its condemnation contribute to the freezing effect on everything from expression in general to innovative classroom approaches in specific? Yes. The trick here is HOW something is taught, not just THAT it is mentioned. A math assignment using whippings and murder of slaves as variables is significantly more problematic as there is nothing integral to the skill being learned that requires the invocation of hatred, violence and slavery. But if the object lesson requires that students be able to defend even the most egregious thought process using select sources (a lesson with more than one practical and useful skill developed) then we must expose the students to the unpopular content.

I'm a rabbi -- a pretty involved Jew who holds the phrase "never again" near and dear to my heart. But I also know that the most inoffensive content can do more to undermine thinking skills when used by an inept teacher than offensive content can when employed by a skilled instructor. Reacting to content without regard as to use, simply because someone is offended ties the hands of effective instructors. Students cannot then consider how the south could have endorsed slavery, or how the Chinese could have defended a cultural purge in pursuit of their own sense of propriety. We don't learn to think like others to become others. We learn to understand how others think so we can recognize when it is beginning to happen again. How can I object to and argue effectively against the registration of Jews in Hungary without seeing the history and past arguments in defense of registering European Jews?

Sometimes I need to think a mile in another man's shoes to be able to head him off at the past.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My City Was Dumb

I do all my best confessing online. I figure that's where I have the most privacy. So I'm here with another big bombshell about my criminal behaviors: I have criminal behaviors. I'm sure I have lots of them but THE MAN hasn't given me much chance to put them into action so I still don't know the depths to which I will sink. Lucky for me THE MAN has, recently, put me in a position where some of that latent criminal behavior has been unleashed.

Julie and I went on vacation a few months ago. Right before we left, I got a piece of mail from the township of scenic Teaneck. I assumed it was a jury notice, a tax document or a thank you note for being so swell for lo, these many years. So I put it in a suitcase and figured I would review it from the Sunshine State. When we settled in to our fabulous rooms, I looked at it.

My local government was notifying me that 2 years earlier I had received a parking ticket for leaving my car in front of my house when it snowed, and that I had not paid the ticket. It notified me of an additional fine and a threat that if I didn't pay, well, bad things would happen. I did what any mature, adult vacation goer would do. I panicked. I immediately went on to the website and tried to see an online version of the ticket because, frankly, I had no idea what they were talking about. I am always very quick to move my car off the street when snow is predicted and even quicker to pay tickets. I got no ticket. For typographical reasons, I found no info on my ticket (the ticket prefix was OO and I read it as 00) so I called the clerk. I explained my situation and begged for a week to resolve the issue (after 2 years of having no idea that I had a ticket, and 1 day of having this mail, I was ready to cave like a...I guess a cave) because I was out of state. The nice woman explained that I could pay or I could get a court date to make any other claim. I said "but I never got any ticket -- could it have blown away in whatever snow there was?" She said that could have happened but I wouldn't know if I didn't ask for a court date. So I promised her that I would call when I returned to Jersey. I spoke about it with the wife and she was equally indignant. As we had no record of the ticket and could find nothing online, she recommended that we take them up on the offer for a court date.

We flew back home and the wife called. The person who answered said that she would issue a court date. So we waited. Nothing showed up but, man, did we wait. Then suddenly, in the mail, we got 2 notices on 2 successive days that we had "refused to respond or pay" so an extra fine was being assessed and my license was under threat of suspension. My ire was piqued so I made sure to call back as soon as I could. Of course, because I received the notification on a Thursday I knew I'd have to wait till Monday. Why? you ask (good question) -- Teaneck town government is closed on Friday in observance of Friday.

On Monday, I called. I recounted to the woman on the phone the whole timeline (in, no doubt 4 part harmony) including the recent call and the promise of a court date. I told her that I really didn't want my license to be suspended but I wanted a court date. She promised me that, this time, she would really send out a court date and that I should watch the mail.

So I did. I watched like no one has ever watched the mail before. I knew the schedule of the mail, the scent of a mailman, and the brand of gas the truck used. If that mail sneezed, I knew it. I had eyes and ears watching the mail, on both sides of my nose. And still nothing. Until today.

Today, I got a piece of mail that notified me that I had, again "failed to respond or pay" and my license was suspended. Suspended. License. Me. Did I mention "suspended"? How about "me"? I forget. I'm sort of distracted.

I try to be a moral and civil citizen, following even the laws I don't like. I like to pay bills on the day they arrive if not sooner. I can't stand the idea of either owing money, or breaking rules, especially if I get caught. So of course, I wanted to resolve this with an angry phone call. I mean, I have to drive to work tomorrow and will not enjoy doing so with a suspended license. Heck, I broke out into a cold sweat when I drove after the car inspection expired.

But today is Thursday. THURSDAY! The government is closed on Friday! I tried to call as soon as I got the mail but, I got home after 5:15 PM (when their office closed). So I can't resolve this until Monday (at the earliest) and have to drive all weekend with a suspended license. To work. Back home. Across town to drop a child off. Across to pick up. Out on Sunday morning and back. Suspended license because they didn't give me a ticket initially, they didn't send me the court date when we asked twice and they aren't open on a regular old work day.

I have to call or go into the Municipal Building on Monday instead of work. I'm going to have to set up a court date if only to argue away the extra fines before I pay the principal and forget about the fact that I never received a ticket. Then I'll have to go into the DMV to reinstate my license. This is my time and my energy. All this because the town government screwed up repeatedly. A suspended license because they dropped the ball.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

er, um

A strange linguistic confluence occured to me and I started to research it yesterday. If you speak Hebrew and English, I hope you find this as fascinating as I do. If you speak only English, then I'm sorry but, while you might be able to pick up on what I'm getting at, the specifics will elude you. If you speak only Hebrew, well, then, shalom. And if you speak neither English nor Hebrew then dskjfa kjdfjhae hsaoern. And Shalom. I'll let google translate have its way with that.

So I was thinking about suffixes. I do that sometimes, usually at the end of the day. In Hebrew, the guy who makes shoes is a sandlar (I am not typing in Hebrew for speed's sake...I have to drive carpool in exactly 10 minutes). I asked a teacher who is a native speaker and she surmised that the construction was based on the root for sandal, combined with a reish suffix as "one who does/makes." I thought it was interesting that in both English and Hebrew the same suffix (-er in English if you aren't paying attention) would develop. I have found roots and full words which mean the same thing in both languages but which are etymologically unrelated, but I never saw it so for a prefix or a suffix. Now, it is true that in English, the -er is not added to the noun/item generally, but to the verb, making the construction "one who does the verb" and I haven't checked to see if, in Hebrew, sandal is a verb (in the same way that "shoe" is a verb in English) so there is more work to be done. My follow up to this was about the Hebrew word for waiter -- meltzar. I was wondering if the construction of the word was a root plus the reish suffix. The root thing here would be m-l-tz (often used in prayer as meilitz, intercessor). The root means "one who recommends or translates" and I could see the role of the waiter as either a recommender of food or one who takes the patron's order and transmits it to the chef. Neat thought, right?

So I took a look in the Klein text I have which is an etymological dictionary of Hebrew. I'm sure you can find it on Amazon but the car has to leave in 7 minutes so I'll leave you to look it up. And I'm sure that many people might argue with Klein's conclusions but be that as it may, he lists both words as post Biblical Hebrew. That's fine. Sandlar is a talmudic term for sandal maker which has evolved into a more general term for a shoe maker. Fine. But he says that meltzar is from the Akkadian word "massaru" meaning "waiter." This means that there is no root and suffix and my theory should be, at least in this case, blown to smithereeens and possibly back.

But it dawned on me that there is a bigger issue. Why would there be an ancient Akkadian word for waiter? There must have been ancient Akkadian restaurants! I had never thought about this. Were there ancient Akkadian fast food joints? Or just the fancy kind? What about Akkadian menus? And how do you say in Akkadian, "Sorry, that's not my table"? Why are there no Akkadian restayrants today where I can order my favorite Akkadian delicacies? I notice that the root word isn't Ugaritic, because the idea of an Ugaritic restaurant is laughable. But Akkadian? Yum.