US education

In the United States, some school districts have already started the new school year and the rest will follow over the next couple of weeks.

In many places, the situation is fraught.

First, an organizational primer for those outside the US. The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national education system. The various states exercise control over the curriculum and policies to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the state. The greatest degree of control usually rests with local school boards.

It’s a mixed blessing.

In some districts, the local school boards have bought into the notion that something as simple as having a book that includes a gay character in the library is akin to “grooming” students to be gay. Or that it isn’t permissible to discuss racism because it might make white students feel bad or guilty. This puts teachers in the uncomfortable position of being afraid to teach history, civics, literature, science, etc. in the way that they were trained to do as educators.

Some of these issues are even more pronounced when they become a state policy. The most prominent example of this at the moment is Florida. This school year marks the beginning of enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act, informally known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The most prominent provision of the law is that there must be no classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The reasoning is that these topics should be totally controlled by (heterosexual) parents.

But, here’s the thing. We use gendered language ALL THE TIME. Some of the first sight words that children learn – mother, father, boy, girl, man, woman, he, she – are all gendered terms. Are teachers supposed to use gender-neutral words at all times, referring to students, parents, and siblings rather than using such common terms as boys and girls, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters? What if a student asks why the family picture a classmate drew has two moms or two dads? Will the teacher be sued if they say anything beyond “ask your parents”?

Florida is also facing what has been termed a “critical teacher shortage.” It’s hard to say how much is due to curriculum concerns versus low pay, lack of administrative support, large class sizes, contract provisions, etc. Teacher shortages are fairly common in the United States, especially in math and science. To fill gaps, some states allow people to teach subjects in which they are not certified or even allow people to teach who are not certified at all.

Meanwhile, teachers and schools are under COVID-related pressures. Although almost all students, teachers, and staff are eligible, many remain unvaccinated, raising the risk of illness. During the pandemic, some students fell far behind academically during the period of remote instruction and need highly qualified teachers and extra tutoring to help them catch up to grade level. Teachers are also struggling with the mental health and developmental needs of students who faced fear, uncertainty, and isolation for months and now struggle with inattention, misbehavior, and lack of age-appropriate social skills. Some teachers are opting to retire as soon as they are eligible rather than continue under these stresses.

In some areas, schools are dealing with church/state issues, as well. Because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government may not establish a religion. However, a couple of recent decisions by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court have poked holes in what had been termed the wall of separation between church and state. Both cases benefit the expression of Christianity; I wonder if the decisions would have been the same if they had been about public prayer by Muslims, for example. In some localities or states, there are even instances of (white) Christian nationalism creeping into school curricula, such as teaching that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not, and downplaying the role of enslavement and indigenous land theft/genocide in our national history.

A lot of this is supposedly done in the name of parental rights, that is, that parents are the ones who should determine what their children learn in public school. I don’t agree with that. I look upon public education as a public good. I want free, high-quality education for every student so they can grow into responsible, mature members of our communities. They need to learn wide-ranging skills in communication, quantitative and scientific skills, technology, social studies and civics, and the arts. Having a broad base helps to develop critical and creative thinking and to identify where a student’s interests lie. Learning in community teaches how to work together and solve problems in a civil way. That was my expectation when I chose to send my children to public school. If my priority had been to control what they were exposed to, I would have opted to home school them. If I wanted them to have learn through a faith-based approach, I would have sent them to a religious school.

I don’t believe that a subgroup of parents should be able to dictate the learning environment of all children in our public schools. If a parent thinks that a certain assignment is inappropriate for their child, the vast majority of schools have a mechanism to assign an alternative. However, that parent should not have the power to say that the other students can’t undertake the original assignment. If those parents don’t understand that in terms of community values, they should at least understand that the parents of the other students have the same right to direct their child’s education as they do. If a parent thinks that all/most of the assignments are inappropriate for their child, it’s time to either homeschool or send their child to a private or religious school that meets their needs.

With my daughters in their thirties and my grandchildren abroad, I admit that I am grateful to have been spared the personal pressures of education during the pandemic. There is a lot of ground to make up for students in the US. Let’s concentrate on that for the good of their future and our country.

SoCS: JC’s Confessions #25

When I saw that Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was “key,” I knew that this would be another intersection with JC’s Confessions, my occasional series in which I “confess” to things that aren’t really sins but that I feel vaguely guilty about. (I’ll paste the usual intro to JC’s Confessions at the end of this post.)

I sometimes wear my Phi Beta Kappa key when I am nervous about a challenging meeting as a confidence booster. It’s on a necklace chain, so it isn’t that noticeable and, if someone does notice it, they are likely to think that it’s just my sorority or my husband’s fraternity key. (This would only be possible if the person doesn’t know us. I went to Smith College, which does not have sororities. B’s university did have fraternities but he would never have considered joining one.)

I think the origin of my feeling guilty about it is that I’m wearing it as a secret reminder that I am intelligent in the best liberal-artsy way, that I can use those skills to delve into new terrain, and that I can contribute to solutions to complicated problems.

That I want my membership in Phi Beta Kappa to be a secret is the problem.

So, I was always a good student. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, which, at that time, placed me in the top 1% of my class. I made first election to Phi Beta Kappa in the fall of my senior year.

There is somehow in the United States an undercurrent of suspicion of people who are “smart.” Having been a good student is taken to mean that you must hold yourself above others. This is not at all true of me but others may assume it is and react in a hostile way.

I nearly always kept my little secret undetected. The one time someone noticed and commented on my key was when I was serving as a parent volunteer on a school district committee doing curriculum work. It was daunting for me to be the one person who was not a professional educator. We did do training together for the work but I had to rely on my personal skills and intellect rather than on pertinent academic background in education. Thus, my need to boost my confidence with my key.

During a break, one of the teachers commented on my Phi Beta Kappa. I probably blushed! In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me, as he earned a couple of degrees from Harvard himself and would certainly have known those Greek letters when he saw them.

It was nice to have someone in on my secret that day, someone who understood what it meant without thinking I was being a show-off.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve worn my Phi Beta Kappa key. My life has been much more contained, especially since COVID appeared.

Maybe I’ll wear it someday not as a confidence booster but as a celebration of my now long ago academic past.

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

*****
As previously mentioned, Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “key.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/19/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-20-2022/

My 40th reunion at Smith

Last week, I attended my fortieth reunion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who may not be familiar, Smith is a women’s liberal arts college, chartered in 1871, one of the traditional Seven Sisters, five of whom remain as women’s colleges.

I came into town a day early in order to meet up with an alumna friend who lives in Northampton and graduated a year before me. Her sister was a member of my class and passed away in fall 2020. I was honored to be able to commemorate her at the Service of Remembrance during our reunion. My ’81 friend and I enjoyed hours of conversation on her front porch, followed by dinner on the porch at Mulino’s, an Italian restaurant that did not exist back in my student days.

I stayed at the historic Hotel Northampton, which has fun features like a mail slot near the elevators on each floor that connects to a large brass mailbox on the main floor for pick-up by the postal service every morning. I also got to do a bit of shopping at Thorne’s Marketplace, a collection of local shops and restaurants housed in a grand historic building. Thorne’s was a fairly new undertaking back in my undergrad days and I’m glad to see that it continues to thrive. I bought some cards and gifts and books and made two trips to Herrell’s ice cream shop. I got a sampler each time, so I got to enjoy eight – count ’em, eight! – of their delicious homemade flavors. This will surprise no one that knows me. I also got to have lunch at Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant/bar that was also relatively new during my student days. I had mac ‘n cheese that featured fresh asparagus from a farm in nearby Hadley. I love asparagus, which is one of the glories of spring in New England; it reminds me of going with my parents to harvest a patch near my father’s hydro station, a remnant of a garden from an old company-owned house that had been torn down.

On Thursday afternoon, I went up to campus for the duration of reunion. Because of the pandemic, everyone had to have proof of vaccination and boosting to register and many of the meals and events were held outdoors. Indoor events were masked, except while eating and drinking. I immediately met up with some of my ’82 friends and the celebration began!

One of the things about Smith reunions – and Smith alums in general – is that we somehow manage to have meaningful conversations with each other at the drop of a hat. Perhaps because of our shared liberal arts background, we are engaged with a broad range of topics across current affairs, public policy, arts and culture, and on and on. Of course, the deepest conversations happen with our close friends but there is a lot of sharing of ideas with acquaintances, too. In retrospect, I wish I had prepared a succinct answer to the question “What do you do?” Lacking a shorthand reply, like “I’m a lawyer, working for this government agency” or “I teach at such-and-such school”, I found myself stumbling to explain forty years of my life in any brief, comprehensible way.

Unlike the vast majority of my classmates, I’ve done little paid work in my life. I’ve devoted many years to being a caregiver of both elder and younger generations, with more than our share of medical issues. I’ve volunteered in church music and liturgical ministry and facilitated a spiritual book study group. During my daughters’ years in public school I served on curriculum committees and shared decision making teams and helped design the honors program at the high school. I joined NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, in 2000 to advocate for social justice. I was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York which finally achieved an administrative and later legislative ban in our state; this led to ongoing involvement in the fight for climate and environmental justice. There is my writing life, as a blogger and poet.

This does not condense into an easy answer to “What do you do?” but it does constitute the bulk of my adult life, which would not have been as rich and varied were it not for my Smith education. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that you “learn how to learn.” By studying across the spectrum of academic disciplines, one absorbs different approaches to real-life issues, enabling critically sound and creative solutions that promote well-being for ourselves and others and for our environment.

Maybe I should have replied, “Just forty years of being liberal-artsy.”

The other thing that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the flood of family memories. Because it was only an hour-ish drive to campus, my parents visited often for concerts and events. They were there for my recitals in Helen Hills Hills Chapel and John M. Greene Hall. They visited at Haven House where I lived all four of my years on campus. There were there, of course, at B and my wedding, a few weeks after commencement with the reception at the Alumnae House. This reunion was the first time since their deaths that I was back on campus and missing them added another layer to the strange mix of familiarity and difference that the passage of forty years brings. For example, I thought about my parents when we were attending the remembrance service, sitting in rows of chairs where the pews had once stood. The pews were removed years ago to allow for more flexible use of the space but their absence felt strangely current when I remembered B and my parents there in the front pews on either side for our wedding.

I also found myself missing my mother in particular among the spring flowers. We were blessed with unusually warm weather for mid-May and the flowers and trees were blooming simultaneously and profusely in response. The scent of the lilacs between the President’s House and the Quad, where we were staying, was so overwhelming I nearly choked. There were lily-of-the valley in bloom, which are Nana’s birth flower. What would have been her 90th birthday was the day after reunion and the third anniversary of her death is a few days from now.

I’m grateful to have been among friends who could support me with this grief aspect. Many of us have lost our parents now, with some still in the phase of dealing with their final years and indeterminate endpoint. As classmates, we were also dealing with the deaths of more of our ’82ers, adding to the list that, sadly, began during our senior year when we lost one classmate in a plane accident and a second to cancer. That’s why I and some friends always make a point to attend the service of remembrance during reunion. We want to honor our departed ones and their importance in our lives, even if they left us long ago. After the service, we visited the memorial tree planted beside the chapel in honor of our classmate Beth. We took a photo which we will send to her mother, who I know finds comfort that we remember her all these decades after her death.

While the central activity in reunion is visiting friends, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy. Some are long-standing traditions, such as Ivy Day when the alums, wearing white, parade between rows of the graduating seniors, also wearing white and carrying red roses, welcoming them into the community of alumnae. The night before commencement, the central campus is illuminated with Japanese lanterns. People stroll among them with live music in several locations.

There are also a number of lectures, receptions, and concerts. The President gave an update on the state of the college. Everyone is very excited that grants are replacing loans in financial aid packages at Smith, making an education possible without graduating in debt. Smith also highlights its accessibility for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. That was my situation forty years ago but it was not recognized in the way it is today. I also attended two lectures of interest. One was how the Botanic Gardens are being re-imagined in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and best practices for preserving species in the face of climate change, all with an eye toward education and social/environmental justice. The other was about the transition of campus to ground-source heating and cooling, which will be a major contributor to Smith being carbon-neutral by 2030 without making extensive use of purchased off-sets. I was particularly interested in this because of the projects we have done at our home to reduce our carbon footprint and because my church is in the process of drawing up a strategic plan to reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels.

Besides college activities, we had a few opportunities just for our class. I alluded to one in this post – an open mic event to read something from our college years. I chose a passage from my adult psychology course journal about my experience coming from a tiny town to Smith. A few of us had brought something with us but we had time to do additional sharing which was fun. Our class theme for Reunion was “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I appreciated that our futures also came into that discussion.

We were also honored to have a preview screening of Where I Became, a documentary about South African students who came to Smith during apartheid. Our classmate Jane Dawson Shang is co-producer and shared some of her experiences making the film. When it becomes publicly available, I will surely share that information here at Top of JC’s Mind so everyone can see the remarkable story of these women.

Reunions at Smith are always exhilarating but exhausting. I had originally planned to attend commencement on Sunday morning but opted for quiet conversation with friends. Walking 17-20,ooo steps a day for three days straight in hot. humid weather proved to be a bit much for my feet and ankles, which swelled rather impressively.

It also meant that my reunion experience ended with what is always most important, sharing with friends in a place that was instrumental to our lives. I hope to see some of them and return to campus before our next reunion.

Five years seems too long to wait.

One-Liner Wednesday: history

History does not repeat, but it does instruct.

Timothy Snyder

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/02/16/one-liner-wednesday-i-won-2/

School/work

The pandemic has heightened awareness of a number of social problems in the United States.

One revolves around the care and education of children. Political and business leadership often spout platitudes about how important children are and how much they care about them, but they seldom back up their words with meaningful policies that help children and the people who love, care for, and educate them.

Before the pandemic, American families often cobbled together child care with parent(s), school, relatives, neighbors, and paid caregivers, who often had to charge more than the family could afford to pay even though their own salaries were so low it was hard for them to get by. When schools and most day-care centers closed due to the pandemic, parents were suddenly trying to do paid work themselves from home while simultaneously trying to care for and educate their children or were forced to quit a job outside the home to be at home for their children.

It’s not a sustainable situation for many families.

There is a big push by the president and some state and national leaders to re-open schools full-time and full-capacity in the fall, even though that is against the recommendations of public health experts, in order for adults to return to jobs outside the home or so they can work from home without interruptions, but, besides being a huge health risk for children and adults, it fails to address the root of the issue.

Somehow, caring for children in exchange for a salary is considered “work” but caring for children without a salary is not considered work. Hazel Henderson calls this non-monetized part of our system the “love economy.”

The United States lags far behind other countries with advanced economies in acknowledging the love economy. We don’t offer mandatory paid sick leave, parental leave, or caregiving leave. People who do get paid as caregivers, whether for children, elders, or other vulnerable people, often earn shockingly low wages. For that matter, many people working in other kinds of jobs also don’t make a living wage, making it impossible to fully care for their family. Other countries also have a must more robust system of social services, so that people have access to adequate clothes, shelter, food, medical care, and education regardless of their income level.

As part of our efforts to #BuildBackBetter, the United States should reform our economic, health, educational, and social systems so that every person has adequate resources to lead a life of dignity. Some components of such a system that have proven successful in other countries have been single-payer universal health care, required living wages for workers, a graduated tax system that raises enough revenue from the top of the income spectrum that those in the lower end can afford their tax bill without compromising the needs of their household, free public education, paid leave for sickness, caregiving, and vacation, and a robust social safety net so that no one goes without food, housing, and other basic necessities. I would also like to see more social recognition and financial support for caretaking that is currently part of the “love economy.” A possible way to address this would be through a program of universal basic income or a stipend for those caring for a child, elder, or person with a long-term illness or disabling condition.

Obviously, crafting systemic change will take time and new national leadership. For the moment, I think it is foolish to implement a national school opening policy. Historically, education has been the province of local districts within the framework of state policy, allowing the system to adapt to local conditions. The wisdom of that flexibility is even more evident during the pandemic. Areas with low rates of illness may plan to implement hybrid systems where students attend in person part-time and online part-time so that physical distancing can be used to keep the virus in check. Areas with very high infection rates may need to keep students at home learning virtually until their infection rate is under control, when they could begin to phase in in-person attendance. All schools will need plans for dealing with changing circumstances; as there have been school closing plans to deal with severe flu outbreaks or natural disasters, there will need to be COVID plans to try to keep the school community and the general public as protected as possible.

Everyone wants students to be back to in-person classrooms, but only if it is safe for them, the school staff, their families, and the community. Pretending we can go back to the pre-pandemic system without grave public health consequences is foolhardy. Instead of wishful thinking, we need to use data, science, expertise, care, and intelligence to adapt to our changed and changing circumstances.

It’s what our children and youth need and deserve.

#BuildBackBetter

I know that I am privileged. I’m white and well-educated. I grew up in rural New England with great parents and was sheltered from a lot of the temptations that get young people into trouble. My spouse B and I have been happily married for almost 38 years. We live in an area in the northeastern US that is affordable enough to live comfortably on one salary, so I could raise our family, help care for elders, volunteer, and pursue artistic work without the added pressure of needing to earn income. I have never lived in a big city with a high crime rate, so I can move about without worry, other than the usual caution that all women employ. I can speak freely and follow my religion, although that comes with some built-in sex discrimination. I am relatively healthy and have access to good-quality, affordable health care. When B retires, we have retirement savings and our house to live in. While not rich by US standards, I am aware that I have more wealth than the vast majority of people in the world.

Yes, I am privileged in so many ways.

Because I grew up in a tiny town, only about 200 people when I lived there and even smaller now, there was not a lot of racial diversity. My parents, though, were diligent about exposing us to the wider world and modeled the dignity and equality of all people, as did Catholic social justice doctrine. As a young child in the 1960’s, I watched as the civil rights movement was translated into law and hoped and, perhaps took for granted, that progress was being made toward the equality that the United States had so long touted.

While acknowledging that some progress has been made, there is still so, so much wrong, which is why the death of George Floyd at the hands of police – on top of so many other deaths of black and brown people in police custody; decades of inequality in education, housing, employment opportunities, and pay scale; violence; the higher rate of illness and death from COVID-19 among people of color and those living in poverty; unequal laws and enforcement resulting in large numbers of black men in prison; obstacles to voting; the recognition that many of our essential workers are poorly paid people of color; discrimination; and personal attacks of all kinds – has caused such anguish, outrage, and action across the country, not just among the black community, but among people of all races. People in other countries are demonstrating not only in support of the US civil rights and Black Lives Matter movement but also to highlight discrimination in their own countries against indigenous and black and brown people.

The vast majority of these protests have been peaceful, which made the recent clearing of the park near the White House all the more appalling. There have been other instances of violence against peaceful protesters and the press, which are totally unacceptable and against the US Constitution and laws. I also oppose any violence against the police or other protesters, arson, theft, and the destruction of property.

Because of my age and the need to protect myself and my family against COVID-19, I have not been to any protests in person. There have been several peaceful protests locally, including some directed against our county jail, which has a percentage of inmates who are people of color much higher than our population and a distressingly high number of inmates who have not been treated sufficiently for medical conditions and/or who have died. We have not had the kind of looting here that has happened in larger cities. There has been a very sad case of arson, the destruction of the premier accessible playground in our area, although no one knows whether or not the person/s involved were motivated by the murder of George Floyd. There has been an outpouring of donations to re-build this special place as soon as possible.

As a white person, I can’t know what it is like to be a person of color, but I do have a window into it from members of my family. Two of my brothers-in-law and my son-in-law, as well as their children, are people of color with personal or family roots in Asia and Africa. They have shared stories with me about fear when being stopped by police, about being followed and asked to leave a store while shopping, and about loss of educational opportunities. They hear derogatory language based on their race. Sometimes, their status as a family is questioned because they are bi- or multi-racial.

Our Declaration of Independence says that all “are created equal” and entitled to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need to carry this out, however belatedly, and maintain it for generations to come. As the late Rep. Barbara Jordan said, “What the people want is very simple – they want an America as good as its promise.”

How do we accomplish this? When I wrote this post a week ago, I did not have concrete ideas, but I have since heard a number of proposals, some around policing and legal practices and some that attempt to rectify consequences of racism in the areas of health care, housing, education, and employment. This gives us an opportunity to advocate with our local, state, and national representatives to enact new laws and policies to move us toward equality. It also means that we can use their positions on these proposals to evaluate candidates in upcoming elections.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to attend several webinars about the path toward greater environmental and social justice. Hearing leaders articulate needed actions and policies gives me hope. Another very hopeful thing for me is seeing the two youngest generations, often called Millennials and Generation Z, stepping forward with ideas and action to shape our future. These young people are more diverse and generally more accepting of personal differences than their elders. Much of the recent energy behind environmental justice, gun reform, and racial/ethnic/gender equality has come from these younger people. I know that I am a better advocate for these causes because of what I have learned from my daughters and their peers.

To me, all of this work is about respect for the dignity of each person and a moral obligation to care for others and for our global environment. There is so much work to do, but, together, we can #BuildBackBetter.

Smith commencement

On this weekend in an ordinary year, the Smith College campus and Northampton, Massachusetts would have been awash in graduating students, their families, and returning alumnae, participating in the traditional activities of commencement and reunion. (While all reunions used to be held simultaneously, now only landmark years, such as the 25th and 50th hold reunions in conjunction with commencement weekend. The other classes meet on the following weekend.)

This year, though, because of the pandemic, the festivities moved online. Saturday evening, the campus would have been illuminated with hundreds of lanterns. Instead, there was a global illumination event, with alumnae and friends of Smith lighting their own lanterns or candles in honor of the class of 2020.  Commencement was livestreamed on Facebook, with a special Zoom experience for graduates, family, and friends.

As a proud member of the class of ’82, I watched the first part of the ceremony. (I admit that I didn’t watch the conferral of degrees, which included the name and photo of each graduate.) I was surprised by how often the alumnae were invoked in the addresses. It’s comforting to know that the strong connections among alumnae and to the institution persist, despite the efforts to divide people that have been so worrisome in the United States in recent years. I add my sincere good wishes to the new alumnae as we all try to find a positive path in the face of these troubled times.

Here are some of the things about the ceremony that I found especially striking:

  • The acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of the region where the Smith campus now is by Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Matilda Rose Cantwell ’96
  • The strong bond that President Kathleen McCartney has with the students, the alumnae, and the entire campus community and the sensitivity with which she treated the disruption of the pandemic
  • That 2020 Senior and Alumnae Class President Dimitra Konstantinos Sierros chose to attend Smith for much the same reason I had – because the students she met as a high schooler were so engaged and interesting that she wanted to be a part of such a vibrant community
  • That Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drew together the accomplishments of notable alumnae and the activism of the class of 2020 in her commencement address, while looking forward to the future endeavors of the graduates

This is not a reunion year for my class. When we meet for our 40th in 2022, I expect that there will be a vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 widely available so that we will be allowed to travel and gather on campus, although masks and less physical contact may still be a feature of post-pandemic life. I sense, though, that this experience of nurturing community at a distance will make our bonds even stronger.

The class of 2020 may prove to have the strongest bonds of all.

SoCS: Sesame Street

Thirty years ago, our television was often tuned to Sesame Street on our local public broadcasting channel. It was an hour long and we followed the story lines of the human and Muppet characters. We had Sesame Street songs on cassette and some Sesame Street toys. We even had a Sesame Street songbook that served us well for many years and often sat on the music rack of our piano.

Now, our television is sometimes tuned to Sesame Street on our television, which is much thinner but with a bigger screen than it was thirty years ago. We still have it on our local public broadcasting station, but the episodes, which are only a half hour, are delayed by months, as the series is now on HBO. I admit that it bothers me, although I know that they needed to make the change to keep the series going.

Our granddaughter ABC, like many other young children, is more likely to watch Sesame Street segments on a tablet or smartphone. And, unlike our old cassettes, there are no tangles of tape as they got used often.

I hope that Sesame Street will continue to be produced around the world for many more years to come. I want it to be there for ABC’s children, too.
*****
Join us for Just Jot It January and/or Stream of Consciousness Saturday! Today’s prompt was “television.” Today’s pingback link is here: https://lindaghill.com/2019/01/18/the-friday-reminder-for-socs-jusjojan-2019-daily-prompt-jan-19th/ 
More information and prompts here: https://lindaghill.com/2018/12/31/what-is-just-jot-it-january-2019-rules/  

Haiti project

In these divisive days around the US elections, I have been clinging to any positive news of people reaching out and offering love, hope, and acceptance. I want to share this story from this past Sunday at my church.

There is a parishioner who co-teaches a service learning course at the local community college. Part of this course is a service trip to Haiti, to a village in the northern section of the island. The church has raised funds and donated materials for the projects on a regular basis over the last several years, so she gives us periodic updates.

The group went to Haiti in October. Because of flooding and hurricane Matthew, the village had endured damage to many of the mudbrick and straw buildings, but other repairs had already been made. The water system that protects the people from water-borne diseases was back in service. The two-classroom school that was part of the earlier iterations of the project had re-opened. Two more classrooms will be added soon. They and the adjoining church, which also serves as a community gathering place, are powered by solar panels and there is enough energy storage to allow the children to do homework at the school after dark, using LED lights. Computers that were donated are part of the school curriculum. There is also a newly-opened sewing school with donated machines that is helping local people learn a useful trade.

Last year, land was cleared for a community garden which grows food for the schoolchildren’s lunch. They had been growing staples like corn and beans which can be dried for later use, as there is no refrigeration available. The community had decided to grow rice as well, which wound up being a fortuitous decision; when the floods came, the rice crop continued to grow nicely and they just had their first rice harvest, with many bags of rice in storage for future school lunches.

The school lunch program is especially important as many of the children will eat their only meal of the day at school.

School costs the equivalent of $25 a year, but that sum is too much for some of the families, so there is a new scholarship fund in place to help more children attend school. There is also a plan to add a kitchen with solar ovens to the school, so that the cooks who make the school lunch can also bake breads and pies for sale to benefit the lunch program.

The people in the village are filled with hope, as they work steadily toward making their lives safer and more comfortable with the help of their friends and partners from our area.

We all need hope. We all need to reach out to each other, to help each other, to recognize that every person has inherent dignity.

Thank you to the villagers in Haiti for reminding me of the power of hope.

 

My first MOOC

I am a proud alumna of Smith College, one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States. I am committed to the liberal arts tradition of pursuing education in both breadth and depth and am eager to learn new things.

So, when Smith announced that it was offering its first ever MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), entitled Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World, I jumped at the chance to sign up, ultimately joining over 5,000 participants from 140 countries.

The seven-week course, taught by Professor Lauren Duncan, was scheduled to begin March 21. In the weeks prior, I had carefully planned for the three to five hours a week that the course was projected to take.

Within the first twenty-four hours that the course was available online, my mother-in-law died after suffering a heart attack.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I would still be able to do all the course activities as I had planned. In one of our first assignments, we had to state our learning goals. I honestly said that I didn’t know how well I would be able to keep up, but that I intended to try.

Back in the day, I was a very good student – and hyper-conscientous. Those instincts reasserted themselves and, even though I was exhausted and overwhelmed, I kept up with the coursework, which often took longer than five hours for me to complete, until the last week. We were to write a five to ten page paper and critique another student’s paper – and I just did not have the time/brain power/concentration to do it. It was some comfort that, because I had completed all the other work, I had enough points to pass the course, had I actually been taking it for credit, which I wasn’t…

Despite my less than optimal participation, I was very pleased to have taken this course and learned a lot from it. I have admired many activists and it was interesting to gain insights into their personal makeup and motivations. Given that I have been involved in  activism myself in several different areas, including feminism, social justice, and environmentalism, I was also able to see some of what I learned alive in me.

The course used the lives of eight activists to help teach various theories of the psychology underlying group identity and activism. Our first step was to choose one of the eight women to study in depth by reading her oral history transcript from the Smith College Archives. Our choice divided us into study groups facilitated by Professor Duncan’s on-campus student assistants.

I chose Katsi Cook, who is a member of the Mohawk nation and an activist for feminism and indigenous rights, combining in her work as a midwife/educator utilizing medical knowledge in a culturally appropriate practice, and for environmental justice. Since my New England childhood, where we lived in an area that had once been home to the Mohawk nation, I have been interested in the indigenous peoples of North America, so I loved reading about Katsi’s experiences as a Mohawk, particularly the storytelling aspect. I was also drawn to Katsi as I have a long-standing interest in women’s health issues and in environmental issues.

Even though we each chose one activist to study in depth, we learned about all the others, who were active in racial issues, gender issues, and civil rights, through their timelines and other course references. Each week, we also learned about Smith alum and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. There was even a special discussion board for Gloria Steinem’s segment of the course, which gave us a forum for addressing our own experiences with activism.

After an introductory week in which we chose the activist to study in depth and read her oral history, we used the next five weeks to study a relevant psychological theory, beginning with earlier work and progressing through to more recent developments in the field. We read scholarly articles and viewed Professor Duncan’s lectures on them, along with relevant applications to our group of activists.

I found the earlier weeks, which  involved older theories, to be insufficient to explain Katsi Cook’s or Gloria Steinem’s or my own experiences, although I certainly gained some insights. One of the most important for me was learning about Politicized Racial and Feminist Identity Theory. There is a stage in this theory called immersion in politicized racial identity and embeddedness in feminist identity in which the individual ties themselves so closely to their racial or gender group that they exclude those who don’t belong to their group. In this phase, attitudes toward people outside the group can be very rigid and negative. For the vast majority of people, this phase leads to an emersion/emanation phase, in which the individual develops a more open and nuanced way of relating to people from other identity groups.

Learning about this theory made sense of a situation that bothers me. Many people have a negative connotation of feminism because they think that feminists hate men and feel superior to them, a viewpoint that may be held by women feminists in the embeddedness phase but that is not held by most feminists. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has led many feminists of all ages and genders to be reluctant to use the word feminist to describe themselves. I appreciate and participate in the current efforts to reclaim the accurate use of the words feminism and feminist, but it can be difficult to educate people. It was helpful for me to be able to apply insights from this theory to this current problem.

In the later weeks of the course, we learned more about some more recent developments in psychological theory. One of the most helpful for me in describing what I saw in Katsi Cook’s life and my own was the concept of intersectionality. The theory takes into account that we each have multiple identities which interact and determine our thoughts and actions. For example, I am a woman, a Catholic, a person with roots in the rural Northeast United States, a parent, a college graduate, and an Irish-Italian-American. Those aspects of my identity, along with others, impact my thoughts, actions, and reactions. Causes in which I am active, such as the movement toward women’s ordination in the Catholic church and the climate justice movement, relate in various ways to several aspects of my identity, not just one.

Another concept that struck me in particular in the later weeks was that of generativity. In examining what personality traits and life experiences lead to activism, we examined the impetus to change things for the better for current and future generations and to pass on knowledge and wisdom. All of the activists we studied showed this trait and it is something that I am acutely aware of in my own life. So much of the work of activism is about making change possible for the future, even when you know you are unlikely to see the final results of your work. Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live to see women gain the federal right to vote in the United States, but her activism helped to make it possible. Many civil rights activists died before seeing Barack Obama elected president, but their witness was vital in moving the country forward. I myself am aware of the generativity aspect of my own activism. I may not see women ordained in the Catholic church but perhaps my daughters will. I won’t know how much impact my work against fossil fuels and for renewable energy and efficiency will have on the extent of global warming, but I feel obligated to future generations to try.

I truly appreciated this course and all I learned from it. The second offering of this course will begin on September 12, just a few days from now. If you are interested you can register here: https://www.edx.org/course/psychology-political-activism-women-smithx-psy374x-0. Professor Duncan has wisely added an audit option for the course, so people can choose to view the course materials and participate in the discussion boards without having to worry about papers, quizzes, and grades.

When things settle down here, I may be on the lookout for another MOOC. There is always so much more to learn.

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