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The Way it Ought to Be… Have we lost the concept of civil discourse?

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

It begins with the way we are teaching our children.

At the conclusion of his news broadcast on CBS each weekday evening, Walter Cronkite would shuffle the sheaf of papers on his anchor desk, raise his eyes to the camera, and deliver his signature sign-off: “And that’s the way it is.” It was one of the first consistent taglines on television. There have been others, such as Charles Osgood’s “See you on the radio” and “We’re in touch, so you be in touch” from ABC’s news magazine 20/20. Entertainment shows followed, like Carol Burnett’s famous ear tug, a secret message to her grandmother, and the current The View which asks us to “take a little time to enjoy the view.” Rachel Maddow thanks viewers for “joining us this hour” and Ellen DeGeneres implores them to “be kind to one another” when she signs off.

DeGeneres found herself the focus of attention within the cesspool of social media recently after attending a Dallas Cowboys game with former president George W. Bush. DeGeneres, a well-known member of and advocate for the LBGTQ community, and Bush, who was resistant to protecting LGBTQ rights, sat next to each other and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. DeGeneres was hysterically vilified on Twitter for fraternizing (or sororizing) with the enemy.

DeGeneres addressed the kerfuffle on her next show. “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say ‘Be kind to one another” I don’t mean only people that think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

What a concept! Our society seems to have become so embroiled in “us vs. them” attitudes that we have lost the concept of civil discourse. We can’t seem to agree to disagree and find common ground. The online cesspool has moved offline and creeps deeper into our lives every day. What’s important to realize is that it begins with the way we are teaching our children.

On a recent trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was struck by how divided and separated the city remains. When the Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement, most of us on this side of the pond thought the issues had been resolved and Protestants and Catholics would now live in harmony. But when I toured neighborhoods in which violence is still a frequent occurrence, I learned that our dreams of peace do not quite stand up to the light of day. Walls, actual concrete walls, longer and sometimes higher than the Berlin Wall, still separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. On certain days, the gates between the neighborhoods are closed and checkpoints set up. A full generation after the Good Friday Agreement, the deadliest violence has stopped but animosity and division survive.

While touring these neighborhoods, my guide explained that the Protestant holidays were two weeks away. We saw whole families preparing to celebrate by gathering huge piles of wood for bonfires. Late night ceremonies would burn in effigy significant members of the other side, including the current Pope. Children worked alongside parents and grandparents, stockpiling wood for the conflagrations which would follow daily parades. The gates would be closed and guarded on each of these evenings to keep the two sides apart.

I was shocked and depressed to realize that the issues have not been resolved. Children are still being taught to hate those on the other side of the wall.

I learned on my tour that the Troubles in Northern Ireland involved many other complex issues besides religious beliefs. Underlying grievances concerning economics and discrimination helped fuel the violent protests of the 70s and 80s. Yet my guide confirmed that religion is how each faction primarily identifies itself. Both sides share an Irish heritage, but the identification as Protestant or Catholic is fundamental and decisive– and deeply divisive.

From the point of view of an American former Catholic who now attends an Episcopal church (which originated in the Church of England, the very church attended by Protestant Northern Irish), the fundamental beliefs of the two confessions seem substantially, if not totally, the same. I feel no conflict between the church I was born into and the one I transitioned into. Not to trivialize, but it’s a little like growing up loving baseball as either a Red Sox or a Yankees fan: both fan nations love the game of baseball, but identify with different teams. While I will always be a Red Sox fan, I understand that fundamentally, Yankee fans love the same game I love, though their devotion clothes itself in a different uniform.

If we do not teach our children tolerance and civil discourse, the morass of discontent within society will grow far worse than the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

The Way it Ought to Be… Have we lost the concept of civil discourse?

We do not need to abandon our fundamental beliefs; we simply need to acknowledge that another person’s different beliefs do not make that person evil and do not threaten our own beliefs. No one is trying to force us Red Sox fans to don pinstripes.

We may not put up physical walls within our own country, but we continue to build attitudinal walls around us and our group. Until those walls are broken down and we allow our children’s minds to develop and explore without ideological boundaries, our social divisions will persist and widen.

My tour guide lived through the Troubles. He acknowledged that it is probably too late for his own generation to reconcile with their counterparts. But he cautioned that if they continue to teach prejudice and hatred to their children, there is no hope for the cycle of division to end. “We won’t see these neighborhoods ever seeing eye to eye in our lifetimes,” he lamented. He warned that the violence that plagued the region for generations could resurface at any time. “The peace accord continues to be precarious,” he fretted, “and it won’t take much for each side to put down their Guinness and pick up a rifle.”

On our side of the pond, we can hope for better. While there have always been different sides to every issue, policy and election, it seems that recently tensions have risen to the level of a “cold civil war.” We can’t accept such divisiveness. We don’t have the bitter history of Belfast to struggle with. We can teach our children that there is a better way.

Uncle Walter was soothing when he intoned each evening, “And that’s the way it is.” But today, it might be necessary to say, “Just because that’s the way it is, let’s not think it always has to be that way.” Change is hard to implement, and even harder to instill in our children. But with substantial effort and a little creativity, we might be able to make our sign-off line more hopeful:

“Be kind to one another and take a little time to enjoy the view, because that’s the way it ought to be.”

See you on the radio. [Shuffle papers. Tug ear.]

Picture source:

Fate Faith in Classroom-Reflections on Hadestown

Reflections on Hadestown

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

We have many figures of speech in our language that refer to hell:

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
    “Going to hell in a handbasket.”
    “Heaven doesn’t want me, and hell is worried I’ll take over.” (That one has been ascribed, perhaps erroneously, to Rudy Giuliani.)

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the new Broadway musical Hadestown, in which there is actually a train to hell. (MBTA riders will understand.) I was struck by the show’s contradictory appeal. While the script frankly admits that the story is sad, the message is nevertheless one of unyielding hope. How is that possible? The story and the outcome, based on Greek myth, are totally predictable. So how does the script manage to convey a message of unwavering hope? And why, by the final curtain, had comparisons to the world of education become unavoidable, at least to me?

How to explain bad behavior to students

How to explain bad behavior to students

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

These are difficult times for teachers. With MCAS looming, budgets due (and most likely cut from last year), and antsy students counting the hours to year-end, teachers have a small mountain of things on their plate. Add the storm of controversies in pop culture (which students pay more attention to than Algebra) and the classroom can be a complex and complicated storm center. Students who grew up listening to R. Kelly are going to have many questions even before getting to the recent revelations about Michael Jackson. And now English teachers have to confront the news that Charles Dickens tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum so he could be with another woman. (Divorce was apparently too much trouble.) Throw in John Wayne’s recently rediscovered racist rants and Joe Biden’s hair fetish and your head spins like a scene from The Exorcist.

Words and Meanings - The teachers’ job, Ask Questions

The teachers’ job

by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist

The job of the English teacher is to ensure that students can read a complex text with comprehension and formulate ideas about it orally and in writing. Teachers often walk a fine line between imparting their own views and facilitating an environment where students can formulate their own judgements based on their own knowledge, values, ethics and beliefs.

Travel Advisory-Pay Attention
I am always amazed that students ever make it to class on time!

by Cathie Maglio, Blended Learning Specialist

Navigating the corridors of a high school during the changing of classes is a challenge. I’d rather drive on the expressway in rush hour. Students move in packs down the middle of the corridor making it difficult for anyone to pass. They congregate at the ends of the corridors blocking anyone from getting around the corner. They stop abruptly to greet a friend and you almost bump into them. Or they almost crash into you texting on their cell phones oblivious to their surroundings.

Education and Inequality, trying its level best, the “Great Equalizer” needs a lift

Education and Inequality

The “great equalizer” of education can only nudge the scales so far.

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

In his FY20 budget proposal, Governor Charlie Baker has waded into the discussion of fair funding for school districts in Massachusetts. He has proposed large increases for districts that have been clearly underfunded for years. While presenting the proposed changes and recognizing the fight many districts have been waging for years, some even threatening legal action against the state, Baker proclaimed the adage we have heard many times: “Education is the great equalizer.”

Curiosity and Courage
Curiosity and Courage in the Classroom

by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist

WGBH, one of our Boston NPR stations, recently ran a three-part series titled, “Teaching the Future: Climate Change Education on Cape Cod.” The series explores the challenges for teachers who are trying to teach about climate change when they have not had deep training on the subject.

Words Matter, Language and liability in a sensitive time

What did he say and When did he say it? And what did he mean?

By Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

When I read recently that UMass Amherst football coach Mark Whipple had been suspended for using the word “rape” in a press conference, a burst of memory went off in my mind. I flashed back to the high school cafeteria line where a classmate blurted “I just got raped by that calculus test.” No one blinked. My first thought was not about his choice of words, but my GPA. His grades in calculus were usually higher than mine; if he had done poorly, my grade would probably be zero.

Tragedy and Triumph, The Highs and Lows of Working in Schools

The Highs and Lows of Working in Schools

by Cathie Maglio, Blended Learning Specialist

The schools I work in have been back in session since the beginning of September. I was excited to get back to see teachers I have worked with for years, to meet teachers who are new to the JFYNet program, and to see all the students, new and returning. I have also gone to new schools, giving presentations on the JFYNet blended learning program. I enjoy doing these demonstrations since it gives me a chance to meet other teachers and principals and to show them a program that I know helps raise students’ skills and scores on MCAS and college placement testing.

What educators can learn from the Red Sox, Good of the Student

Humans do not always perform according to algorithm

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

The Red Sox won the World Series this fall for the fourth time in fourteen years. If any of my friends had told me in 2003 that the Red Sox would collect four World Series championships in the next decade and a half, I would have told them they were crazy. (Disclosure: I strongly believe most of my friends to be crazy anyway.)