Education Opinion


March 01, 2004 13 min read
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Offensive Weapon

While putting the vacation mail into the teachers’ boxes at my elementary school, I paused when I picked up your magazine. Both the principal and I were shocked to see a knife on the cover, with the title “Tools of the Trade” [January/February]. Working in the school office and seeing firsthand at least three children, since the beginning of school, who have brought a knife to school and then have suffered the consequences of their choices, ending in expulsion, I’m wondering where your head and heart were to show a “weapon” and refer to it as a tool of the trade. You had the opportunity to choose many more positive images to show the multitasking adventure education can be, and I find myself and others sad and offended by your choice of cover. As well, we were unable to see the connection between the knife and your articles. Teaching by example sends a loud message, and your cover surely sends the wrong one.

Sharon Clayson
Hesperian School
San Lorenzo, California

Unbarable Truth

As a professional educator, I am insulted by the inclusion of photographs from the Men of the Long Tom Grange calendar [“What’s Wrong With This Picture?” January/February]. The photos are in poor taste and have no place in a publication for individuals who work with children. I am surprised the staff of Teacher Magazine chose to dignify this calendar by displaying its contents.

Daniel Marston
Southington, Connecticut

I have never written to complain to a magazine before, but I was totally offended [by “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”]. If a school did raise money with such a low-class project, I did not understand why you reprinted their “success” story in your magazine. I have always held the teaching profession to a higher bar, not dabbling in the lower street stuff of other jobs. But the naked man in such a professional magazine did not seem right. Nudity offends me, be it in males or females. I hope this article does not encourage other schools to bring this type ofvalues to our children. To what levels are our morals going?

Carrol VanMeter
Tecumseh High School
Tecumseh, Oklahoma

Act of Faith

Ronald A. Wolk’s “Rights and Rituals” column [Perspective, January/February] is interesting and thought-provoking. One point needs to be clarified: His statement about praying to Allah seems to assume that “Allah” is the name of some specifically Islamic deity. “Allah” is the word for God used by Arabic speakers, regardless of their religion.

Edmund S. Meltzer
Former Associate Chairman
School of Religion
Claremont Graduate University
Claremont, California

In reference to “Right and Rituals,” there is no inconsistency between policy and practice regarding the Constitution. Congress may not establish a religion. It may not prohibit the exercise of religion. There is no mention about the practice of religion, in the [Constitution] or elsewhere.

If Christian children attend a Muslim school, they should expect that prayers will be to Allah. (When in Rome...) As far as I know, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in school is not compulsory. Many students just stand respectfully and wait. And “under God” does not make it a prayer, merely a statement of what many believe to be fact.

I am a teacher who is not Christian, but I do not object to references to God in public because the majority of people do believe in God. I am free to believe as I will, to recite or not, to omit what I don’t wish to say. My individual freedom seems to be intact; I have not been “forced” or “required"to pray or pledge in schoolor anywhere else. Let’s stop being so overly sensitive about “minority rights.” Enjoying rights does not mean entitlement to rule the majority. In what other country could we be so fortunate?

Melinda Colvin
Springdale, Washington

A School Apart

As an Irishman, I read John Gehring’s article “Reconcilable Differences” [November/December] with puzzlement and annoyance at the pattern of minor things, such as his insistence on using the term “Londonderry” to describe Ireland’s northwest city though 90 percent of people there call it by its historic name, “Derry,” or his reference to the protestors who were shot and killed on Bloody Sunday. He writes that “Bloody Sunday epitomized the kind of madness fueled by centuries of animosity and bloodshed....” It’s strange how even the most politically correct journalists are quite happy to slander an entire nation with a charge such as “madness.” The people doing the killing on Bloody Sunday were English, probably graduates of integrated schools in England! But no talk of British madness from Gehring. In fact, he leaves Britain almost entirely out of the article, as if Ireland had autonomously and solely created the problem in its territory.

Given the usual clichéd “heavy hand of history” angle that Gehring follows in his article, it is puzzling that he did not address the origins of the education system in the north. More than 90 percent of the people want their children to be educated in an environment that gives expression to values they hold dear. Is that so hard for Gehring to understand? In the case of the Catholic tradition, which is the one I know more about, parents feel that Catholic schools will nurture such things as Gaelic field sports, the ancient Irish language, an Irish-centered view of history, and of course the faith of their fathers. Our Protestant friends hold different though similar values, and equally firmly. I doubt that Gehring would call for Jewish parents to be denied the option of sending their children to schools that foster the Jewish faith, the Hebrew language, and Jewish history. Yet he seems to think that the kind of school he visited in Ireland is the only acceptable model. The fewer than 10 percent of parents who opt for this model of education have, of course, every right to do so, but please don’t slander the 90-plus percent of parents who send their children to traditional schools as somehow unreasonable or anachronistic. No one here denies that we have problems, but they are neither solved nor adequately examined by ignorant and superficial journalistic tourists such as Gehring.

David Barnwell
Belfast, Ireland

John Gehring’s reply: The choice to refer to the city as “Londonderry” was a difficult one. My story points out that even the name of the city provokes controversy. It clearly remains a point of intense passion; your frustration confirms this. U.S. media consistently refer to the city as “Londonderry.”

Clearly, most people in Northern Ireland choose to educate their children in majority Catholic or Protestant schools. The article does not denigrate this choice or portray integrated schools as “the only acceptable model.” I sought to inform our readers that integrated schools are increasingly popular, in part because many believe that the level of segregation in the mainstream system has hindered efforts to integrate Northern Ireland. A recent poll showed that 81 percent of people there believe that integrated education is important to the peace and reconciliation process.

Class Act

Thank you for printing an article about drama teachers [“Stage Directions,” November/December]. Many times, we are the ugly stepchild until someone needs a skit on prom behavior, or standardized test-taking, or anything else—then we become momentary heroes. I am fortunate that I am not in that situation, but I work with professionals across the state who are. I would love to see an article showing the test results of students in the arts—that we really do enhance every aspect of the “academic” curriculum. We should be praised for teaching math, English, history, time management, group dynamics, and, oh yeah, theater, all at the same time. I adore my job and hope that as teachers, we can all see the benefit of these programs. My heart goes out to those theater teachers struggling for acceptance and fighting for survival. I hope you keep “playing your part” in making students, teachers, parents, and administrators aware of the positive aspects of theater programs in school.

Michelle Backel
Lyman High School
Longwood, Florida


Leisure reading is a tough sell, but not so tough that it is impossible [“Buy the Book,” Comment, November/December]. The key is having books that bring readers into the library. My Follett library software system recorded that I checked out 7,511 books during the 2002-2003 school year, an average of five per student. Students here have full schedules, with time off only for a 30-minute lunch period. There are no study halls, so most books signed out for personal reading are signed out during lunch and before or after school. Last month, 358 students came into the library during these times. The key is to make the library a place where students want to be, not a place students only come to when required. To accomplish this, the library media specialist must be an advocate. The school library must be marketed as though the students and faculty members are customers who must be convinced that the library is a place they want to patronize.

The library media specialist must begin by asking teachers, other staff members, and students what books and authors they would like to see represented in the library’s collection, and then order these books, whether for research paper topics or personal reading. When a book shipment arrives in my library, the news spreads like a hot rumor. Soon there are both faculty members and students anticipating the processing of the order. These books are “claimed” before they are even in the collection! After acquiring desired books, the media specialist should seek out several teachers and offer to collaborate with them on a unit, project, or research paper. These collaborations take time, and the library media specialist must be willing to put in this time so that the collaborations will be a success. Perhaps the first effort at collaboration may only attract one or two teachers, but word will travel, and soon others will wish to collaborate.

The media specialist should also show respect for the students who come to the library. There should be books in the library that students want to read. Although I personally like Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” this is not a poem I would have copied for students. Instead, I might have chosen the title poem from The Rose That Grew From Concrete, a volume of poetry written by Tupac Shakur when he was 19. I have read this volume, and his poems are very moving and thought-provoking. In fact, I have several copiesof the book in the library,and they are always on hold. There is nothing more rewarding to a librarian than to overhear one student tell another, “This book was so good; you have to read it!”

I have been the library media specialist at my school for eight years. Previously, I taught English at the same school for 23 years. When I first became the librarian, the collection had fewer than 2,000 books. It now has 14,000 books, still about 7,000 short of the American Library Association’s recommended minimum. The collection is completely automated, and I oversee two computer labs. I have several ongoing collaboration projects with teachers and try to add at least one or two new ones each year. Because the value of a school library media program is constantly being challenged, I have been an advocate of my own program, and I intend to remain an advocate so that the library remains the center of my school.

Sherry Clark
Delcastle Technical High School
Wilmington, Delaware

Peace Protests

I was extremely enthusiastic and overjoyed when I saw the article, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” [October], which told the story of Colman McCarthy. As a current student in his Alternatives to Violence II class taught at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., it was my pleasure to see McCarthy finally getting commended for his passion, optimism, dedication, and exploration of controversial issues, which makes his class one of my favorites. I was upset, however, when I saw the letters to the editor in the next issue and read what other people had taken away from the article. I feel I must respond to those readers who hastily concluded that McCarthy is a “radical” who should be barred from the school system, whose ideas are unrealistic, and whose audience consists of captive students who are there only due to academic problems.

McCarthy’s teaching methods attract some of the brightest and most inquisitive students. Perhaps if some of his critics had taken one of his classes, they would have realized that McCarthy’s classroom is a place to vigorously explore and discuss issues. He is not proselytizing or teaching rebellion but rather promoting independent thinking and challenging preconceived notions. His optional attendance, homework, and testing policies have forced us to focus on the true purpose of education— that “what we learn without effort is often forgotten with haste.”

Samantha Fien-Helfman
Washington, D.C.

When I read the comments concerning the article on Colman McCarthy, I was a bit shocked by the response. As a teacher I found the article to be both interesting and stimulating. Here is an educator who attempts to utilize peace studies in an elective course to develop within students one of the most essential skills associated with higher learning as we know it: critical thinking. The methods he uses are untraditional but completely acceptable, and the forum for thought that he provides is essential to the intellectual development of young people preparing for the real world. I anticipated glowing reviews of the article and was stunned to read the hate mail it received.

The comments in many ways reflect the need for peace education and pedagogies of difference in our classrooms. As educators, we need to consider what type of model we provide for our students when we respond with hostility to the different opinions and approaches of our colleagues. How do we respond to students when they offer another perspective in class? To disagree with McCarthy is perfectly fine, but to accuse him of “abusing the public trust” and being “a parasite” who pitches an “asinine agenda” is in no way constructive.

As I read the comments by readers that described McCarthy as a traitor, I could not help but reflect on the current debate in our country surrounding the term “patriotism.” In all honesty, I consider McCarthy an “intelligent patriot.” This phrase, originally coined by George Maxwell, refers to a form of patriotism that “sometimes entails an immediate, smart salute, but at other times demands persistent, penetrating questioning.” In my opinion, we need more McCarthys, not fewer.

James Peckham Stephens
Martinsville, Virginia

I have had the opportunity to work with Colman McCarthy and to sit in many of his classes during the last two years, and I was present when Teacher Magazine‘s reporter attended his class. In general, I thought the article was insightful and thoughtful but in such a short encounter didn’t capture the entire story of his work in challenging young adults to think about themselves, their parents, their schools, and the systems (school, community, nation) in which they live.

Colman’s beliefs—from a lifetime of commitment—are presented as a template for the students to challenge and find their own beliefs; in Colman’s words, “to bring out the best in each student.”

The dialogue is open, challenging, and respectful of all. Many “guests” of different beliefs are welcomed into class for discussion. The end result is many people speaking their own personal and diverse beliefs in a respectful environment—the real model for peace.

Tom Murphy
Millennium Project
American Council for the United Nations University
Washington, D.C.

Teacher Magazine welcomes the opinions and comments of its readers. Letters should be 300 words or fewer and may be edited for clarity and length. All submissions should include an address and phone number. Send letters to tm@epe.org, or mail them to Teacher Magazine, 6935 Arlington Road,Bethesda, MD 20814.

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