“Love truth, but pardon error.”
Yesterday I was traveling home from Luna Records when I passed the bus station. I did a quick double-take upon spotting my buddy Slotsky standing there with a suitcase in hand.
“What the hell”, I think as I do a u-turn.
I pull up a few feet from the stop and wave him over. “What are you doing?”, I ask.
“Going on a peace corp mission”, he replies.
“You’re taking the bus to Africa?” I responded somewhat incredulously.
“No”, he indignantly replied, “I’m not stupid. I’m taking the bus to McMinn County to spend the next three days teaching people to download books from Amazon. “
Still feeling puzzled, I ask, “Is this because of the MAUS controversy?”
“You got it. People think that the school board effectively banned the book, but I’m going to show them that it is impossible to ban a work of art in 2022. The book is still available to everybody in McMinn County. “
Chuckling, I say, “Well that is certainly very noble, but somewhat misguided of you. Get in and let’s talk.”
Reluctantly, after checking to make sure his bus wasn’t in sight, he opens the door and slides in.
“First off”, I start as he settles in, “I think most everybody in McMinn County is familiar with Amazon. Both downloading and mail order. Secondly,. I think the issue lies in the argument that by removing the book from the curriculum, you are depriving students of the guidance of a teacher.”
After scratching his jaw for a minute, he replies, “Now I’m confused. The book was removed from the ELA curriculum, right? Not the social studies curriculum?”
“As far as I know.”
“Sooo…”, he says thoughtfully, “Materials selected in 8th grade are done so to teach the standards and not content correct? If that’s true, then no matter what novel the teacher chooses they are, in effect, fully equipping students to read books like MAUS or Grapes of Wrath or The Hurt You Give, sans the guidance of a teacher. Because going forth in life…they are hopefully going to read a lot of books without a teacher guiding them.”
“I would say that is correct. The goal is that by examining a literacy text, students will be trained to identify things like theme, and character motivation, identify the usages of suspense, humor, and dramatic irony. To become better readers, and as a by-product, deeper critical thinkers.”
“Now this certainly is an opportunity to expose students to higher-quality literature”, I continue, “But the trick is to teach them fully comprehend all literature on their own. Obviously, you want to try and choose books that meet the criteria but also resonate with students. That’s why some champion the use of graphic novels, like MAUS.”
“So what you are telling me is, the book is not only not truly “banned’, but we are not even necessarily having the right conversation?”
“Feels like that doesn’t it? Furthermore, keep in mind that the “big test” won’t measure how well students learn the content of any one book, but rather their ability to master the standards. Too much focus on the content…could translate to low scores on TNready. And I know that most of us take those scores with a grain of salt, but the TNDOE and the General Assembly treat them as gospel, and therefore they can’t be ignored.” I told him as we sat in the car.
“So I don’t really need to go to McMinn County?” he asks with his head in his hands.
“Not if those teachers are doing their job:, I reply, “and there is no reason to believe they are not. Keep in mind, there is nothing in the removal of the curriculum that prevents a teacher from recommending a book in the library. Or one available on Amazon for that matter.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, while his bus pulled up, took on some passengers, and department. Slotsky remained in my car.
“Come on man, I’ll give you a ride home.”
“Thanks”, he mumbles
Attempting to change the subject I ask, “You catch Governor Lee’s State of the State speech?”
Chuckling sardonically, he replies, “You mean the one where he sang the praises of Tennessee exceptionalism and then promised a Michigan company millions to teach us about civics? Or was it the one where he promised to monitor the books in school district libraries while failing to acknowledge that all the questions around books are coming from the curriculum his Education Secretary pushed? I can’t wait for the day when Schwinn is forced to levy a fine on a teacher and their only crime is teaching materials she promoted.’
“Well, I don’t want to see anyone fined.”
“Me neither, but you know what I mean.”
I nod in agreement, “What did you think of the new funding for schools?”
He laughs aloud and then dismisses the whole idea, “What funding? It’s all contingent on the general assembly passing a new funding formula, and there are no details on that. So basically he’ll kick in a billion – whether it is recurring or not is anyone’s guess- if legislators pass a new funding formula this session. Word on the street is that the Senate won’t hear any education bills after mid-march. We are talking about 6 weeks to pass something that nobody has even seen yet. That’s insane, but par for the course of late.’
He is warning to the subject and so I don’t interrupt, “This whole line about funding student needs, what does that even mean? Are we going to ask students, do you have proper housing, adequate food, a place to study, and then move into the school building, or are we just going to rename the weights that already exist and label it student-centric?”
“I would say that those are some topics that need to be covered before moving forward,” I answer.
“It drives me fucking batty that the media allows them to portray all of this as if the funding formula has remained unchanged for 30 years. Both Bredesen and Hallam attempted to change elements and were caught in the weeds, yet Lee thinks 6 weeks is more than enough time. What is it I heard that Bowman fella say the other day, ‘The current formula does need adjustment and modernization, but we need to study potential ramifications before moving completely away from our current system. If not, we will spend years plugging holes again, trying to fix another broken funding system.’ Sometimes he makes sense.
‘Right now the current BEP formula funds 46 components in four different areas including instructional staff. We better be careful of unintended consequences before we go running willy nilly down the road”, I note.
“Predicting unintended consequences and planning for them, has never been a strong point for us”, he says with a sigh, “Why should now be any different?”
“Riddle me this”, I ask, “What are we going to spend $500 million dedicated to Career Training and Education on? That’s a whole lot of scratch,”
Slotsky gives a snort before responding, “The cynic in me says that a lot of it will go toward subsidizing corporations for using students for internships and such. You know, a little labor for friends kinda deal. We’ll give you $30 dollars an hour for every student you hire at $15 an hour. Suddenly Lee Heating and Air will have a fleet of teenagers working for them. Cheap labor will help the economy grow and line the wallets of CEOs. A win/win for everybody.”
Shaking my head, I respond, “I’m not as cynical as you, but I can’t tell you that you are wrong either. If Lee was serious, instead of offering $125 million for teacher salaries, he’d flip it with CTE and designate a half-billion to teachers, Now that would make a difference.”
“Yes it would, Speaking of teachers did you see that stupid article the other day about teacher attrition? It argued that the data doesn’t match the perception, and teachers aren’t really leaving in mass. In fact, they are doubling down and getting more involved with their profession through increased union involvement. Sounds good if you say it fast, but tell it to those high school students sitting in gyms daily with no teachers. Nobody’s got any time to get involved in anything outside of their daily responsibilities.”
“No, they don’t”, I agree.
Slots continues on, “The article makes the argument that ‘data shows that the hiring crunch might be because there are more jobs to hire for. Vacancies have increased, suggesting that districts might be beefing up hiring after a year of uncertainty and an influx in federal aid. In other words, labor shortages are not totally attributable to increased turnover. And while early data on teacher retirements suggests that there might have been increases on the margins in some places, fears of mass retirements have not borne out so far.’
“if the data ever matches the perception”, I reply, “then it’s too late and we are already sunk. But they can’t seem to admit that.”
We sit in silent reflection while we watch the road pass by. Finally, Slotsky picks up the conversation, “We haven’t even talked about these Michigan charter schools Lee wants to bring in, because nothing says Tennessee exceptionalism like outside contractors. I tell you, people better get their heads out of their asses and start talking to each other. If I was Myra Buggs, I’d be calling Amy Frogge or whoever represents public school interests. If Hillsdale gets 50 of its private, or charter schools, established, it ain’t going to be good for nobody’s business. if each of those schools only has 200 kids, we’re talking 10k kids. Where are they going to come from?”
“I don’t disagree. According to Main Street Clarksville, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System has recently received an application for a Hillsdale-affiliated charter school, So it’s already begun.”
Things remain quiet until we pull up to Slaotsky’s house. He opens the door and starts to get out before pausing and asking, “What the hell is informed patriotism.”
“No idea” I responded, “I’m guessing the opposite of blind patriotism, maybe.”
Shaking his head, “And Cerpicky has a bill that will allow basically for underperforming districts to be taken over and elected school officials to be removed. What the hell is that? Have we learned nothing from the Achievement School District?
“Don’t worry, that one isn’t going anywhere. People on both sides are lining up to take shots at it“, I respond in an effort to appease, “And Griffy’s got a bill lined up to let at least legislators see TNReady test questions. That might be helpful. Maybe, just maybe.
“You know he went that whole speech without once mentioning the word COVID?”, Slotsky hadn’t moved to exit, “Not once. I get not living in fear and accepting that it’s part of our world. But to just ignore its impact…what the fuck? it’s like getting run over by the car and describing your condition without ever mentioning the car.”
“I thought the same thing. And then he proposes funding summer reading camps to the tune of $25 million. Why are we footing the bill for that? Is the ESSER money all gone? Are summer camps going to become part of the BEP, like tutoring is being proposed?”
Slotsky steps out of the car and grabs his suitcase, Before he shuts the door of the car, he looks at me and says, “Four more years of this guy?”
I pause before answering, “Sure looks that way.”
He just shuts the car door and steps away from the car, I give him a wave as I pull out. Driving away I glance in the rearview mirror and watch him turn, shoulders slumped, and slowly head into his house. “I feel you my brother”, I think,, “I feel you.”
That’s a wrap.
A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. This time of year more than ever your continued support is vital.
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