Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jeffersonville High School Principal Wants More Control

HARBESON: Making a judgment of errors

I don’t understand the uproar surrounding Jeffersonville High School principal James Sexton’s desire to have more control over the school newspaper. The conflict is completely unnecessary.

If Mr. Sexton is being truthful that his concern is not about content, but rather about grammatical errors, typos and other mistakes, then there is a simple solution which would benefit everyone involved.

I propose that the students prepare a newspaper draft chock-full of the various types of errors the principal worries about publishing.

This idea has several benefits. First of all, purposely making mistakes requires a good understanding of the rules that govern any structured activity and can be a great way to learn. So as the students purposely insert errors into their stories, they will learn a lot about writing and journalism in the process.

Inserting errors will also give the students a chance to test the principal and I’m sure this twist would be a refreshing change for teenagers who have grown up with the stifling testing requirements of current state and federal law.

In addition, creating an error-laden draft will go a long way in dealing with a government school principal who craves control. I imagine Mr. Sexton would likely be very happy and content while spending time marking all the errors — using a red and white pen of course.

Perhaps best of all, as an added bonus for the student body at large, Sexton would have less time available to bother others who are actually trying to learn by doing, which includes the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.

This is the only idea I would bother pursuing. I just can’t recommend spending too much time getting involved in fights between government school employees when there is way too much available out here in the real world for teens genuinely interested in communication and journalism.

I understand they may feel trapped in regards to obtaining credits for their future goals, so I can’t blame them for jumping through the hoops and doing what they need to do, but past that I really encourage teenagers to spend their free time educating themselves.

Teenagers interested in journalism are old enough and smart enough to get out here and jump right in if they wish. It’s so easy and cheap to start your own journalism experimental lab nowadays — one of the easiest is to create a blog using freely available software.

In addition, there are many places to learn about journalism, much of it available for free. I almost missed my deadline because I lost track of time browsing all the resources available online for anyone wanting to learn about journalism.

In an environment where people share information about current events in real time and any cell phone camera can be used to produce video news content, teenagers know that the controls desired by this principal, such as the three-day prior review, would teach them little, if anything of value for a world that is moving at increasing speed.

No one knows how the journalism field will continue to change as technology moves forward.

So my message to teens is to go ahead and do what you need to do to get the credit if you must. But I strongly suggest you spend your free time actually practicing journalism outside of that system.

If you think you need help getting started, let me know. I’ll be happy to share the resources I’ve found and volunteer my time to help you in any way I can. You’ll find out soon enough you don’t need me anyway.

— Clark County resident Debbie Harbeson is quite the expert at making mistakes but she’s still working on actually learning from them.

Monday, August 22, 2011

More on the Critical Analysis of War

HARBESON: Some deep thinking about war

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I hesitated before submitting last week’s column wondering whether medals and commemorations may stifle the critical analysis of war. I knew it would probably upset some people and it did.

However, I’m glad I pushed on because I received a very interesting letter from Mr. Sanford “Sandy” Kelson, a veteran who was not upset.

Mr. Kelson was born in 1944 and joined the U. S. Army in 1963. He explains why:

“When I was growing up, my education caused me to believe certain things. Education is not just what you learn in school. It’s what you learn at home, from TV, newspapers, the movies, from music, art, etc. I got a consistent message from all these sources. I learned that we Americans were special. We were better than others. Our form of government was the best; our economic system was the best; our leaders were more intelligent and just; we were more honest, smarter, more trustworthy and brave. God was on our side ...

“So, in 1963, young and patriotic, I enlisted in the U.S. Army for a three year tour of duty ...”

He became a sergeant in charge of a 10-man machine gun squad and although his outfit ended up going to Vietnam, Kelson himself did not. He continued:

“Just before my outfit was due to be shipped out, my commanding officer, a captain, summoned me to his office. He explained that since I had less than 90 days remaining in my three-year tour of duty that I would not be going to Vietnam. My orders were changed from going to Vietnam to being discharged from the Army and being shipped back home to Pittsburgh, Penn., to safety, to the bosom of my family, while my outfit, my buddies, would be going to Vietnam, into harm’s way. I was so naive and stupid that I had no idea what this would mean to me later on.

“After I got home, I started getting letters from my friends who were in Vietnam. The letters told of horror after horror.”

He shared stories about several men from his outfit who were killed or permanently injured. The stories in his email are extremely gory and unpleasant. But, I’m glad he sent them; we should all learn the gory and unpleasant details of war.

He then shared another letter:

“A buddy wrote and said, Sandy, everybody here hates us. I wondered, how could any of them hate us? My friends were dying to protect them from communism, from the North. We were spending billions of dollars in Vietnam. How could they hate us? We were the good guys, we wore the white hats. I was confused. Things didn’t add up. I began to critically think — possibly, for the first time in my life. Up until then, I had believed what I had been told by my government on faith. Faith is the belief in something for which there is no proof. I started going to the library and I read everything I could on Vietnam …”

“I have been speaking to students to tell them my story. I ask that students do not take what I say as truth. If students do, then, in a way, I will have done to them what others did to me as a young person … I ask that you not accept what anybody tells you as truth. Not your parents, not your teachers, not your religious leaders. You must explore, by reading, discussing and critically thinking and find your own truth and then to act on it for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, our brothers and sisters.”

There is much, much more in Mr. Kelson’s email. If you think it’s time you started taking a deeper, more critical look at war, let me know and I will be happy to forward his letter to you.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson is hoping to wear out her index finger pushing the forward button on her computer this week.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The (Purple) Heart of the Matter

HARBESON: The honor in war

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I’ve been thinking a lot about war lately. This is partly due to the U.S. Postal Service’s government-granted monopoly on delivering first-class mail.

See, I recently discovered that the stamps with the odd shape I’ve been using for a while, and slapping on envelopes upside down, are commemorating the Purple Heart. As most of you probably already know, the Purple Heart is an attempt to make us all feel better about the damage done to individuals who were unlucky enough to get physically wounded or killed by our nation-state’s involvement in various wars.

I think it makes a lot of sense to try to do something to acknowledge what has happened to these people and to their families. What concerns me is how such actions may contribute to the continuation of war.

Medals and commemorations worry me because they create an atmosphere of automatic hero-worship over the critical analysis of a given war. Growing up with memorials and commemorations helps build the belief that American wars are always moral. This has led to acceptance of actions from politicians that go far beyond any sensible understanding of defense.

Awards such as the Purple Heart are used by the government to promote abstract moral ideas like honor, glory and service to the country. But little, if any, attention is given to the effectiveness of using violence as a means to resolve conflict.

Ever since the phrase “greatest generation” was embedded in our culture, I’ve always thought it was strange how we talk about our aging veterans as if they all voluntarily consented to join the military. The way our society pretends that all veterans were willing to go kill people in other countries on behalf of this country hides the real dissent that existed in all wars fought.

People were still being conscripted into military service as recently as 1972 and I wonder how some draftees or families feel about the Purple Heart. Does a medal ease the burn or does it further inflame the horrific injustice?

When the draft ended, advertising on behalf of military service began almost immediately. This happened at nearly the same time the government created a law banning some cigarette advertising because, well, those things can kill you.

As Americans, it’s relatively easy to go about our daily lives insulated from the horror of war. We’d have to work hard to even imagine what it would be like to have another country’s military camping on top of the Knobs, claiming to be there in the name of freedom while at the same time killing our children.

So is it possible to hand out medals to soldiers and their families without glorifying war at the same time?

I noticed that the town of Clarksville plans to spend money on “improvements and additions” to its war memorial and the low bid was more than $300,000. Governments spend a lot of money memorializing war; that in itself may be one clue that it might not be a good idea.

Maybe the best we can do is stop focusing war commemoration activities on our singular perspective. Perhaps every time war is memorialized, mourning should include all the human deaths that occurred, the soldiers and the involuntarily conscripted on both sides, as well as the civilians who live in the country where the battles occur who just happened to be born on the wrong piece of dirt at the wrong time in history.

People should certainly be able to empathize with the helplessness felt by families who live in the countries the United States invades. After all, despite the claim on having greater freedom to control the government Americans live under, it still seems impossible to get the politicians, Democratic or Republican, to stop playing their war games.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson wonders if a day will come when a private entity creates a stamp commemorating the end of government.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Talk About ISTEP Testing

HARBESON: Playing the percentages

SELLERSBURG — A couple of weeks ago when this newspaper reported on local government schools’ ISTEP testing, I said it made me yawn because the results bear little relationship to my definition of learning.

So when I saw the ISTEP report on Southern Indiana’s two government charter schools, I prepared for a nice nap. However, I was jolted awake by the justifications both charters used to defend their inadequate scores.

Like me, Community Montessori administrators don’t put much stock in ISTEP scores because the learning that occurs in a Montessori environment would not necessarily show up on a standardized test meant for traditional schools. They believe if they did teach in a way that focused on standardized testing, then it wouldn’t be a Montessori school.

But since the school is government funded, it has to accept the strings attached and as a result it spent 20 percent of its time on improving ISTEP scores. So is it really a Montessori school any longer? I suppose we can say it is an 80 percent Montessori school, which is better than any number less than that point. But how much does a 20 percent change affect the philosophical goals?

Take a moment and pick something you value, such as your income, your family or maybe even the number of hours you sleep. Now, if you suddenly lost 20 percent, would anything change? For example, if your spouse suddenly went from being 100 percent faithful to 80 percent faithful, would you still define your relationship as a marriage?

What if we could ask Maria Montessori if she would accept 20 percent less focus on her philosophy? How do you think she might respond?

Of course, the most important person to consider in regards to the 20 percent marker is the actual learner. If a child has to spend time being molded to fit inside a government-imposed test, can we even measure the potential damage this might have on his ability to truly absorb Montessori values about learning?

Now, Rock Creek Community Academy probably doesn’t have it quite as bad. It’s true they had to dump their religious principles to grab government money, but they were already believers in the traditional school model of domination and control, so submitting to the authority of government-imposed testing is not really out of their boundaries.

However, even though the schools are quite different in philosophy, what I found most interesting in their comments is that they both claim to value the growth of the whole child over training skills for a government test. This is a fine goal, but what set my alarm buzzing was both schools’ direct claim on teaching moral development.

These two charter schools have a problem if they want to claim authority to teach moral and character-driven approaches because they are stuck in a moral contradiction of their own — accepting other people’s money taken by force in order to fund what they do.

That’s a tough enough moral quandary for traditional government schools, but these charters have it even worse because they both previously operated in the voluntary market. What is their lesson?

Well, if you are struggling to persuade people to voluntarily fund what you do, then it’s OK to use government to force people to fund it.

ISTEP might make me yawn, but I’m awake enough to realize it wouldn’t be right to lie down and pretend not to notice when ANY entity that uses aggression and coercion claims that their first priority is to teach the moral and character development of children.

I trust that those who believe in these schools and the values they claim to hold will seriously consider the contradictions here. I know it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for me, too, because I have personal connections to good people involved in these schools.

But that does not give me an excuse to ignore basic contradictions and not challenge them when I hear them. That just wouldn’t be right — even 20 percent of the time.

— Southern Indiana resident Debbie Harbeson says that when she loses 20 percent of her sleep time, it’s always a nightmare, particularly for the people around her.