Friday, April 30, 2010


(News-Herald, April 29) Bullying is back in the news. Recently we’ve seen disturbing new developments, including bullying so extreme that it has driven teens to suicide. Bullying in schools is nothing new, but commentators are suggesting that we have turned an ugly new corner.
The problems of society have always leaked into public schools; a new wave of bullying is no surprise. Society has some bullying issues of its own.
The students in school today grew up with politicians and pundits who attack opponents with flat-out meanness. From Ann Coulter to Al Franken, political disagreement has been recast as a professional wrestling match, and political candidates at all levels compete to see who can deliver the most damning smear. Bullying is no longer simply a tactic; it’s the point, the purpose. The winner is presumably he who does the best job of pushing his opponents down.
It’s no wonder than many young people have learned that the best way to deal with someone who disagrees with you is to try to brutalize him into submission.
School bullying is complicated, often subtle, and now easier with internet anonymity. Sometimes one bully is goaded by a stealth agitator. Sometimes the bullied quickly becomes a bully. And let me be clear about this—nobody ever “asks for it” and it is never “his own fault.” But at the same time, there are students who keep feeding the situation that creates their bullying.
Over the past several years, school anti-bullying programs have proliferated with nice slogans like “no place for hate” or “no bully zone.” They mean well and probably don’t hurt anything (they’re better than rules designed to protect “different” kids from bullying by forbidding any students to be different). But I don’t believe they help much, either.
Bullying isn’t about hate. It’s about power. Strong kids bully weaker kids. Smart kids bully dumber kids. Well-dressed kids bully scruffy kids. The social elite bully the social inept. People with power bully people without it. Bullying is about picking a fight, on your terms, with someone who is not equipped to fight back. It’s about being bigger and forcing someone to understand that they’re smaller. It’s not always about hate; sometimes it’s not even personal.
A No Bully Zone is also largely futile because hardly anyone who bullies other people thinks he’s a bully. Tell him this is a No Bully Zone and he will look puzzled and suggest that you go scold an actual bully. To stop bullying, we have to understand what a bully is thinking when he’s making someone else miserable.
Some bullies believe that there are different rules for people who are Right and people who are Wrong. Right = big and Wrong = small, so it’s okay to beat Wrong people down, and keep beating if they won’t stay down.
The bully may see himself as a soldier for Order and Right. He’s not picking on people—he’s just trying to put Those People in their place, because if you don’t keep them knocked down a peg, they’ll start thinking they’re as good as Regular People. He may even see Those People as a personal threat. This is how some alleged Christians end up believing that it’s okay to bully gay folks, and how some gay folks end up believing it’s okay to bully Christians.
And now several Christians and gay people are getting ready to write me a letter explaining that what they’re doing is certainly not bullying—they’re just protecting themselves from Those People, who started the fight in the first place. That’s why people want to be on the losing side (so many people want to “take back the country” that I’m wondering who actually has it)—if I’m a victim, I’m just defending myself, not bullying someone else.
Those People is another tell-tale bully trick. Most bullies will tell you, “Of course I treat other human beings decently. But Those People don’t count because…” In any local school you can substitute another label—tecker, prep, jock, goth, other terms not fit to print—we all already know them.
The antidote is simple. (Not the Golden Rule, because the bully’s response is “If I was one of Those People, I would know to stay in my place.”) Let’s not argue whether to call you a bully or not. Just do this:
Treat other people well. Don’t be mean. To anyone, ever.
No passes, no excuses, no justifications, no exceptions. If we could manage to instill this in students (and their parents), we’d never have a bullying problem again.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New Music with Local Ties

(News-Heralds, April 22) One of the marvels of modern technology is that anybody with some simple equipment can record music and sell it to the masses. It used to be necessary to convince some suit at some record company to give an act a break, in part to help fund the expensive business of studio recording. While the traditional route is still traveled, many artists can create entire discs at home. Of course, anybody can do it. Actually talent is not a requirement, and music buyers in the new digital age must beware.
But amidst this new wealth of great, nearly-great, and not-remotely-great music, some real gems often appear. Here’s some news about two singer-songwriters with both technology and talent at their disposal.
Ami Sandstrom Shroyer graduated from FHS quite a few years ago, but she was a musical powerhouse even then. Since those days she and her husband have embarked on a career in ministry, which includes (but is not limited to) her recent cd release 40,000 Days.
This disc collects unabashedly Christian music that showcases both Ami’s singing and songwriting skills (recordings of one of her previous songs garnered a prestigious Dove award). Her voice is bright and light, clear and clean as a bell. Several of the songs have a nice pop sound, and many use a piano-guitar blend familiar to fans of early seventies folky pop.
Some of the songs here (“I Lift My Hands,” “Holy God”) are ready for prime time as praise songs, easily sung along with by a congregation. That’s no small feat; it’s not easy to write a song that is both effectively moving and approachably simple.
The top song of the disc is “Home,” a song with sophisticated changes that are not only clever songwriting, but also powerfully evoke longing, release and strength.
While a few of the songs are peppy and upbeat (the title track is cheerily, gracefully optimistic, and “Your Secret Place” wants to be a 1971 radio hit, in a good way), the majority of the disc is soft, slow and meditative. Taken together, these performances give a picture of a loving and uplifting God who walks with the singer through marriage, parenthood and even death.
You can order copies of this cd by going to the Shroyers’ site,
While Shroyer has been in the music biz for a while, Amy Porter (who graduated from FHS more recently) just released her first album. Love Will Come is a collection of six (seven if you act quickly) of the many songs she has written over the years. The collection is emotional and very well-produced, moving through a progression of the heart.
Porter opens with “Lament,” and dense and driving setting for the serenity prayer, followed by a trio of beautifully sad songs. “Favorite Wine” and “Dream” capture the essence of a yearning and broken heart, while “Grandpa” is a song in which Amy and her brother Mark share memories of the grandfather who has passed away. Unlike a more typical grief song, there is no pat relief in the final chorus. This trio of songs carries heavy emotional weight.
But next is “Love Will Come,” a song that promises relief for a variety of burdened people. One of my favorite Porter lyrics appears here: “When we see her face, we won’t believe the lies that say it’s too late.” After this song raises the Hope stakes, “Only” provides further encouragement, with a guitar-based hook reminiscent of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Act soon and you get a seventh bonus track, “Not With You” which offers an upbeat banjo-laced tune and Porter at her most Karen Carpenteresque. The closing trio of songs offers the promise of hope, love, and strength.
The set (an EP, not a full disc) is lushly produced with a mix that ably supports Porters smokey rich voice (she sounds most like Sarah McLachlan), complete with aching strings and crunchy guitars. These are personal songs, and that shines through clearly.
To order the set, go to . Half of the money made goes to the orphanage in Haiti where Porter works.
Both sets are easy on the ear, enjoyable to listen to, but with a bit more soul and substance than the typical top forty offering. Each of these exceptionally talented young women has produced some beautiful and rewarding music, and both have roots right here in Venangoland. Give yourself a musical treat and support some musicians with local roots.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Teacher Merit Pay: Why Not?

(News-Herald, April 15) The nicest thing I can say about Obama’s education plan is that it isn’t any dumber than Bush’s, which is like observing that it isn’t any worse to be crushed by dead rats than by dead squirrels. I do give this administration credit for admitting that it’s not possible to make every single American school student above average by 2014. Or by 5014, for that matter.
Every politician comes equipped with his own list of favorite education ideas. In the political world, they call these Initiatives for Reforming and Revitalizing Education. In the teaching world, we call them Ideas That Could Only Come From People Who Rarely See the Inside of a Classroom.
Several of these classics appear in the Obama plan, including merit pay.
Let’s skip over the question of how to determine merit. Judging merit is tricky—everyone can name really good and really bad teachers, but most of us work somewhere in between those extremes. I expect that I can find former students who think I did a great job and others who think I stunk. And that’s before we get to people who define merit as “gives my child lots of playing time” or “always gives my child a good grade.”
But lets pretend we somehow solved that issue. What are the other problems with merit pay?
Budgeting is the biggie. The current pay scale system has its flaws, but as a budgeting tool it’s hard to beat—school boards can project exactly what their personnel costs will be years into the future.
Merit pay creates two possible scenarios. In scenario one, we decide what individual merit will be worth and let the chips fall where they may. “Sorry folks,” says the school board. “But our teachers did such a great job this year we need an extra 200 grand to meet payroll.” In this scenario, budgeting is a mystery and the taxpayers root for teachers to do a lousy job.
In scenario two, the board sets its total merit budget, and that pie is sliced thick or thin depending on how many teachers earn dessert. The more teachers who do well, the less they all get paid. In this scenario, teachers in the district fight each other for their paycheck.
Both scenarios promise fiscal challenges and serious damage to the school and community atmosphere.
Obama’s folks want to use merit pay to help push for higher-quality teaching staffs, and that’s a great objective. Nobody would like to see a school filled with top-notch teachers more than the teachers in that school. But I remain skeptical because, in the pursuit of excellent teaching staffs, so few districts use the tools already at their disposal.
Market theory would tell you that districts would compete to get their pick of the best teachers, offering incentives to attract the best people, then interviewing and screening rigorously to get just the right fit before they hire. But they don’t. They trust to luck, which comes through just often enough to make them believe it’s a plan.
Districts could watch new teachers extra-carefully. The first few years make all the difference in a teacher’s growth, but if there’s no sign of potential or growth, districts can fire pre-tenured teachers for any reason at all, nipping weeds in the bud.
Districts could also check for something other than a pulse before granting tenure; it’s not automatic. And once granted, tenure does not give incompetent teachers a free pass. Tenure simply requires districts to do more than say, “You’re ugly and expensive, so you’re fired.” Teachers who don’t stack up can still be pressured, retrained, disciplined and, yes, fired. It just takes some work.
One irony is that teachers have always been willing to give up big bucks in exchange for job security and other intangibles. Districts can easily reward their best teachers with other intangibles—praise, recognition, responsibility, a voice in decisions, just generally treating teachers like grown-ups.
Bad teachers are a small but powerfully annoying group; I’d love to see them get out. Like many teachers, I wish that PSEA and NEA were more aggressive about pursuing quality in the profession. But lousy teachers pay union dues, too, so I don’t look for too much help there. I don’t think the feds will help much, and Obama still hasn’t called me to consult.
However, school districts that are serious about pursuing teacher quality can do it today, with the tools already at their disposal, and without having to spend a cent on merit pay.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Whiskey Rebellion

(News-Herald, April 8) Can you identify the correct decade for each of the following pieces of American political items:
Regional tension so great that many people expect the country to split in two. Politicians accused of violating the Constitution. Critics asserting that the government’s fiscal irresponsibility will bankrupt the country. Big city politicians dismiss the dumb hicks in the sticks, while rural folks say that the politicians just don’t get it. Debate so polarized that moderate voices duck for political cover. Activists in warpaint to show their sympathy with the Boston Tea Party and the patriots of the revolutionary war. Politicians charged with being tools of big financial interests. War profiteering. Oh, and throw in State’s Rights, too.
Of course, I’m talking about the 1790s, specifically 1790 through 1794 and the events known (but not all that well) as the Whiskey Rebellion. The following quick refresher/introduction courtesy of Thomas P. Slaughter’s excellent book, The Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1790, the American frontier is here. US citizens have pushed as far west as the Ohio valley, and their top concerns included Not Being Killed Horribly by Native Americans. The feds help back a militia raised in Kentucky and Pennsylvania; in October of 1790 that militia faces natives in “pitched battle” for the first time. The militia forces were completely defeated.
In that same year, the feds are looking to pay off the war debt that they have taken from the states. Alexander Hamilton pushes an internal tax, an excise tax on whiskey. It is a hard sell, and before the end its supporters have argued, among other things, that drinking whiskey is a vulgar habit for low-lifes and if a tax made them buy less of the noxious liquid, all much the better.
The tax passes in 1791, the same year as another military debacle and defeat at the hands of native forces. This time it appears that well-paid east-coast suppliers had provided shoddy and useless supplies and weaponry.
Fighting for their lives, feeling federally ignored, and facing a nuisance tax that they found insulting, illegal and unethical, many folks in western PA and Kentucky consider becoming an independent state. It was never a viable option, but it shows just how mad they were.
The next best thing is to fight the tax. Frontier citizens refuse to pay it, and threaten the men charged with collecting it. They hold meetings, dress up as Tea Party Indians, declare themselves the true heirs of the revolution and rail against the “elites” back East who are destroying the country. Many moderate politicians in the West face an angry mob and have little choice but to say, “Oh, I’m with you guys” and hope that a chance to soften the movement might appear.
Faced with open and loud challenges to the federal government’s right to do, well, anything, the feds strike back. First they use law, requiring distillers to face charges in Philadelphia—no small trip for westerners at the time.
The squawking grows louder. The whole frontier is flouting the law, but Western PA is special for two reasons. One is John Neville, one of Pittsburgh’s first wealthy successes; he was charged with collecting the tax, and unlike other men with his job, he was not about to back down. The other is George Washington; the President had recent history with the region, as he had quietly become one of the region’s major landowners. He is both familiar and fed up with the frontier attitude.
The Feds are standing up “for law and order.” The rebels are standing up “for freedom.” Rebel moderates tried to negotiate a solution that the radicals may never have accepted, but it didn’t matter because Washington and Hamilton had already decided to bypass negotiations and use force.
Were there battles? The rebels considered conquering Pittsburgh, which they called “Sodom.” The US army, dubbed “the watermelon army,” could barely hold itself together. What are sometimes called battles might as easily be called riots. The deaths are tragedy and farce; one of the first is caused by a man so unhandy with his weapon that in trying to uncock it, he fires and kills a man instead.
The army captured a ragged assortment of unimportant men who were too slow to escape. The angriest rebels headed west, and many moderates who had tried to soften the rebellion found themselves charged as radical ringleaders. Americans, typically tone-deaf to history, quickly forgot this episode though it featured threads that would be part of our political life for the next 200+ years.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Easter and Redemption

(News-Herald, April 1) I do not ordinarily get extra-excited for holidays. It’s not that I don’t like what the holidays stand for. Whether it’s the Fourth of July (“community and country are good”), Memorial Day (“people who in service of our country deserve respect”) or even Christmas (“Yay, Jesus” if you’re Christian or “Be nice and buy things” if you’re not), they all represent good and worthwhile concepts.
But really, if the sentiment is that important, I’m pretty sure it deserves more than one day’s worth of our attention. Sometimes I think some people use their single day of visible devotion to love or family or patriotism as an excuse for 364 days of slacking on those fine qualities.
Easter is different. Other holidays can be reduced to a single icon, an image that we can fit on a poster or a t-shirt. A flag, a star, a baby, a big smiling Santa holding whatever product he’s being used to sell.
Easter can’t be reduced. Yes, we try. An egg. A cross, empty or not. But those don’t do the job. Flags, stars, mangers, Santas—they all stand for the idea that we associate with the day. But Easter is not about a simple concept or frozen image. Other holidays celebrate concepts; Easter celebrates an event. The cross doesn’t really capture Easter—it’s just the place where something important happened.
Easter is about redemption, and redemption is an action. It’s something that happens, and so at Easter, we can celebrate the moment that it happens. Other holidays are chairs in which we can find ourselves sitting, watching the spectacle, but Easter is a door we have to stand up and walk through.
And what a door it is. The most powerful tool possessed by evil (Satan, bad vibes, whatever you like) is the idea of “Game Over.” We make a mistake, show poor judgment, give in to our lesser selves, or just plain behave badly. There is nothing more powerfully destructive at that point than saying, “Well, that’s it. I’m an awful person, and I’ll do nothing but awful things for the rest of my life. There’s no point in trying to do anything else.” Based on what we’ve done so far, we throw away everything we might ever do with the life that lies ahead of us.
Many cultures lack the idea of redemption. If you have made a mess of things, you have no options but death or exile. Everything good you ever could have done is snuffed out before it can even draw breath. Because things are dark now, we declare the future already dead.
So redemption and resurrection go together, because redemption brings our future back to life.
And it requires action, movement, a change in our own position and direction. You can sit in your chair and think, “Yeah, I am feeling patriotic/loving/reverent today.” You can’t just sit and your chair and think, “Yeah, I am feeling so very redeemy today.” You have to get out of the chair and walk through the door to find that new reborn future.
Now, the future we get may not be the one we were planning on. Messing up, darkness, defeat, bad mistakes—those can all put an end to the path we were on, and it’s a mistake to think that redemption moves us backwards. Easter morning found the disciples facing a future that was newly redeemed from the utter black defeat they had been contemplating, but it was also a future completely different from anything they had imagined.
The other nice thing about redemption is that, done right, it changes our view of others. Because if my future can’t be written off as dark and dead and useless, than neither can anybody else’s. There isn’t anybody so low and dark that redemption is impossible. It doesn’t mean that I give anyone a free pass for bad behavior, and it’s always smart to stay out of the way of dangerous toxic people. But it does mean that I don’t get to simply dismiss people because I see them as just Really Wrong today. No matter how dark it is right now, tomorrow is another day.
Easter is not about standing still; it’s about moving from the darkness into the light, from death to life, from lost to redeemed, from winter to spring. And it is one of the few holidays that does not ask us to sit and watch something happen, but to be the thing that is happening.

From my Flickr