Do-Si-Don’t

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This morning my daughter informed me that her PE class was beginning a square dancing unit. Her comment brought back unwanted memories of dizzying circles, do-si-dos, and high school boys’ sweaty palms.

It has always amazed me that square dancing is a requirement in many high schools’ PE curricula. Why do we force boys and girls to learn an outdated and decidedly countrified dance form in the midst of suburbia? The answer can be traced back to Henry Ford, who thought that teaching square dancing in schools would help children learn social politeness and cooperation, as well as keep alive a cherished American custom.

Many state legislatures have passed resolutions naming square dancing the official state dance. So generations of American children have been forced to listen to recordings of a square dancing caller shouting out commands: “Swing your partner! Do-si-do! Allemande left!” I recall that when I was in high school, it was all we could do to stop laughing hysterically and actually follow the prompts.

Square and social dancing were the bane of my existence in high school PE. And that’s saying something, coming from a completely non-athletic and largely uncoordinated person. As a naturally shy girl, I was intimidated by having to hold hands with boys in gym class. Even more uncomfortable was the ballroom dancing segment, during which boys and girls were alternately expected to cross the gym floor and ask someone to dance. I’m not sure which was worse: standing on the sidelines waiting to be asked to dance or having to traipse across the room and ask a boy to dance.

Ballroom dance, at least, has some practical application later in life. At the very least, the mothers and fathers of the bride and groom at a wedding will want to be passable at slow dancing. I actually enjoyed my ballroom dancing course in college. I lucked into partnering with the best dancer in the class, so we consistently received high grades – until he asked me out and, when I refused, stopped seeking me out as a dance partner in class.

I’m all for offering interesting alternatives to dodge ball in high school PE. However, I fail to see the benefit of teaching our youth square dancing. I hope my daughter’s square dancing unit will be mercifully short so that she can move on to more interesting  topics. Zumba, anyone?

A Safe Space

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In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.

Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.

Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.

Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.

Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.

Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.

All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.

All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.

Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.

 

Dress Code Double Standard

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school_dress_codes-e1452017832686As part of her middle school volleyball team, my daughter needs a pair of navy blue spandex shorts to go with her uniform. While ordering them online, I asked her if she would like an extra pair for practice. She responded that the girls were not allowed to wear them to practice because they would distract the boys, who share the gym for after school practice.

This is just the latest example I’ve noticed of a double standard when it comes to school dress codes. Most of the restrictions fall on girls and seem to imply that girls’ dress is too sexually provocative. This is wrong on a number of fronts. First of all, it makes girls self-conscious about their bodies. When a first grader is told that her sundress is inappropriate and forced to cover up (houstonpress.com), she is getting the wrong signal about her body. Even older girls, who mostly just want to follow current fashion, are not trying to be sexually enticing. Furthermore, the stated intention of many of these rules is to avoid a distracting environment for boys. Such policies imply that boys are wild animals who can’t control themselves.

Girls and their parents are fighting back, however. For example, a high school student in Kentucky produced a film titled Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code, which led her high school to reexamine its gender-biased dress code. Similarly, a group of middle schoolers in New Jersey started a campaign #IAmMoreThanADistraction to draw attention to the issue. (neatoday.org, 1/6/16) And parents at a Chicago area middle school protested that a ban on leggings and tight yoga pants was sending the wrong message to girls and excusing boys’ sexist or predatory behavior. (HuffPost, 3/19/14)

There’s nothing wrong with expecting students to dress appropriately for school or to disallow threatening or derogative messages on clothing. But issues of inappropriate dress should be handled on a case by case basis instead of applying wide-ranging, strict rules that unfairly target half of the student population.

The tight spandex shorts girls and women wear for volleyball help their movement and performance on the court. They are not made for the titillation of males. I’m not sure why, but my daughter’s coach backed down from his prohibition of spandex shorts at volleyball practice. After all, these same girls will be wearing the spandex as part of their team uniform during games. Why should that be deemed appropriate when the same garb at practice is not allowed?

I plan to attend my daughter’s games and cheer on the fabulous, athletic girls on her team.  They will impress by their bumping, spiking, and setting,  and not by their spandex.

 

Religious Schools and Religious Tolerance

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This is an article about two Christian colleges on the outskirts of Chicago. One attracts Muslim students in large numbers while the other has begun taking action to terminate a professor over her solidarity with Muslims.

Wheaton College is an evangelical school that requires its staff to accept and confirm the college’s strict “statement of faith.” Recently, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor, was censured by the college for a Facebook post in which she declared solidarity with Muslims on the basis that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wheaton College officials were unhappy with what they regarded as an insufficient explanation on Hawkins’ part as to the vast theological differences between the two faiths. Hawkins countered that she was merely expressing solidarity with Muslim people, not repudiating the statement of faith required by the college. Wheaton College has begun the process of terminating Hawkins’ employment.

This is not the first time Wheaton College officials have displayed religious intolerance. In 2006, a teacher was fired for having converted to Catholicism. How can a college that is ranked 8th in the country for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by U.S. News and World Report (wikipedia) show such narrow-mindedness?

In reference to the Hawkins issue, even another Wheaton College professor, Gene Green, remarked, “People should be able to have this as an object of discussion. There’s no direct violation of the statement of faith.” (christianitytoday.com, Jan. 6, 2016) He went on to call it an issue of “academic freedom.”

It is hard to fathom how true learning and exchange of ideas can occur in a college with such stringent regulations. Ironically, Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s and was the first Illinois college to graduate an African-American student.

Meanwhile, less than 10 miles away, the Roman Catholic institution Benedictine University has become a mecca of sorts for Muslim college students. Founded by Benedictine monks and ranked by Forbes magazine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the last five years, Benedictine University’s “inclusive religious environment” (diverse education.com, Feb. 4, 2009) has made it a welcome place for Muslims to earn a degree while being allowed to practice their faith. Such features as a permanent Muslim prayer space and cafeteria food that meets Muslim dietary requirements certainly facilitate such inclusiveness. In addition, the university sponsors an Islam Awareness Week, with lectures and programs to foster learning and understanding between Muslims and those of other faiths.

Benedictine University is proof that an institution of high learning can stay true to its religious principles while welcoming the diversity that is found in America. The philosophy at Benedictine is that its students will have to meet in the world outside college. Why not help them develop understanding and tolerance for each other before they are thrust out into “the real world”?

Religious tolerance may not be mandatory for a religious school. But isn’t it desirable? Christianity should be about welcoming the stranger, loving all of God’s children, not just the ones that share our exact beliefs. In my view, Wheaton College is failing miserably at that ideal.

 

School Discipline Not a Police Matter

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This is not a post about police brutality or racial profiling despite the fact that the teenage girl at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina is black and the officer who roughly grabbed and tossed her out of her chair and onto the floor is white.

What I found incredible was that the officer was called in in the first place. The girl was not being loud, swearing, or threatening anyone in the classroom. She was committing what these days must be a common infraction: using her cell phone in class.

There were other ways to handle this situation, yet the teacher chose to escalate the situation by calling in first an administrator and then a police officer. The teacher could have quietly and privately asked the student to stop. He could have engaged her in the lesson by asking her a direct question. Asking her to leave the classroom was not the best idea. When she refused, he felt his authority was being challenged and therefore he had to act.

When I was a student teacher, I had a student who would literally turn his body sideways and look out the window for the entire class period. I chose to deal with him privately after class rather than create a scene in the classroom where the rest of the students were doing their best to learn.

The Spring Valley teacher could have dropped the issue and detained the student after class. If such intervention was unsatisfactory, he then could have involved a counselor or an administrator. He may have discovered more about the reasons for the girl’s misbehavior in that way.

It’s interesting to me that a number of students cut school to protest the firing of the school police officer. I am sure they view the girl as a troublemaker, and they may not be wrong. But student misbehavior usually comes from a struggle going on within that child. It would have been more beneficial for the teacher and the student to get at the root of the problem and help her rather than make her into a criminal.

The need for police officers in school is an unfortunate reality. School officers investigate incidents on school property and sometimes conduct searches for drugs or weapons. And certainly if there is a major altercation that occurs in school, it is beneficial to have an officer there to handle the situation.

But having a uniformed police officer come into a classroom to handle a matter of class discipline is not what we want to see in our schools. Ironically, calling in the officer created way more disruption than the girl ever had by using her cell phone.

Let’s remember that teens are still children. That frontal lobe in their brain is still developing, and they often make terrible choices. Teachers need to be role models, demonstrating calm and nurturing their students’ maturity as well as intellectual development.

Let’s hope the incident at Spring Valley High can be a learning experience for us all.

The Cranky Grammarian: Getting Possessive

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Every English teacher (or former English teacher) has a few pet peeves when it comes to spelling, usage, and grammar. One of mine is the incorrect spelling or punctuation of possessive pronouns.

At the top of the list has to be the mistaken addition of an apostrophe to the possessive pronoun “its.”  “It’s” is a contraction for the words “It is” while “its” is a pronoun meaning, “belonging to it.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen “it’s” used incorrectly in signs, essays, and even published work.

I understand the mistake. After all, for most singular nouns, to form a possessive, you would add an apostrophe “s,” as in “Mary’s son,” “the man’s wallet,” and “for Pete’s sake.” So it’s an honest mistake to misuse the apostrophe with the possessive of “it.”

A good rule of thumb is that there is no punctuation in any of the possessive pronouns – “my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, their, theirs, our, ours, its.”

While we are on the subject of “their,” the interchanging of the three homophones, “their, there, and they’re” also drives me crazy. Check out the following sentence:

They’re not happy that their mother was the one to drive them there.”

“They’re” is a contraction meaning “they are.” “Their” is a possessive pronoun meaning, “belonging to them.” “There” refers to place and should be easy to remember if you notice that the word “here,” also referring to place, can be found within the word “there.”

A big problem with homophones is that spell check doesn’t notice if you are using the wrong word. So writers beware. Remember that some spelling and usage can be tricky. Slow down, proofread, and use each word in its proper form.

Teachers Rule

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In my last post, I extolled the virtues of the best teachers and pointed out how important good teachers are to the development of our children. Yet as I wrote that post, a contentious contract negotiation has been taking place (or getting stalled) between our high school district and its teachers.

The school board is trying to hold the line on teacher pay raises and at the same time ask the teachers to shoulder a greater portion of health insurance premiums. Much is being made about the fact that the teachers in our district are already some of the best paid in the state. To which I respond, Touché! Bravo for us! But in order to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, we need to continue offering the most competitive salaries and benefits in the area.

I understand that school boards need to be fiscally responsible. And no one wants to pay more in taxes – except maybe Warren Buffett. But it’s not as if we are making teachers rich while we languish in poverty. For that reality, our community should consider itself luckier than many. As a matter of fact, a highly regarded school raises property values for the entire community, whether or not you have school-aged children.

Our school facilities are not the most up to date. Both high schools could use major facelifts, it’s true. But in our district, we taxpayers put our money where it counts – into teacher salaries. After all, a gleaming new school building with state of the art equipment is meaningless without the students and teachers that fill it each day.

As summer wanes and we prepare to send our precious cargo (aka, the kids) off to school in the fall, let’s remember that it will be our teachers who welcome them, nurture them and help them grow intellectually and emotionally. Just as happy moms make for happy families, happy teachers create healthy schools.