How Sweet It Is!

I cannot tell you how many times, especially between 2013 and 2015, I heard my colleagues bemoan how much the general public hates teachers. Many refused to participate in actions our union organized, from things as basic as wearing blue on Thursdays to bigger things like attending board meetings and hosting house parties, because they were so sure the public hated us.

A few brave souls, at first, waded into the troubled waters. They wore the blue, went to the meetings, held the parties, and they learned the truth–our students’ parents do trust us! They appreciate what we do and respect our expertise!

Word began to spread. The pictures of staff members in blue on Thursdays included more and more people. Teachers made signs and held them in front of schools, and then again on Wadsworth with all those wonderful, supportive community members. House parties sprang up all over the county. And then community decided to do something.

Remember that recall in 2015? Remember the rush? The joyous feeling that the people of Jeffco really do care about kids and really do understand that teachers only want what’s best for them?

Two years have passed, and last night’s election confirmed it: Our county decided to continue giving a chance to the three new board members to keep Jeffco moving forward. Why? Because educators and others who care about Jeffco kids knocked on doors, made phone calls, and got the word out. As I stood on all those doorsteps on four different Saturdays, nobody told me how much they hate the teachers’ union or teachers themselves. Over and over, they said that if the educators in Jeffco said these were the folks for the job, they’d vote for them, and vote for them they did!

 
Relax. Bask in that warm feeling. But remember, we’ll be asked to walk, knock, and talk again. No excuse-making! We know it makes a difference. You know you can make a difference, a difference that will ripple far beyond your life and touch the lives of nearly 85,000 children and the future ahead of them. Ask anyone who did the work for this election: It feels damn good!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

Trans Annos

Right now, understandably, there are a whole lot of shooting survivors asking, “What now? What does the rest of my life look like?” Because right now it looks insurmountable. This is my frustrated attempt to communicate to them via Facebook. When I posted this list on a wall meant for violence survivors, Facebook stuck a big thumbnail for the first post over the list, obliterating the rest of it. People only saw that first post. I wanted to convey what this journey has looked like for me for the last 18 years, not just at first.

Whether you’re a survivor, or the friend or family of a survivor, or just curious, feel free to follow this list around the various blog entries I’ve written. There’s a lot here, so feel free to take your time, especially if you’re still dealing with a high degree of trauma and still have the attention span of a gnat. I remember those days all too well.

My own experience of PTSD (published on the Sandy Hook Columbine Cooperative after the Aurora shooting, but it’s my story):
http://sandyhookcolumbine.org/…/story-high-school-teacher-2/

Written six years after for Red Lake after their shooting:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=348

Written eight years after for Virginia Tech:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=286

Written 14 years after for Sandy Hook on their first anniversary:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=365

Written 15 years after for Sandy Hook on their second anniversary:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=458

Written 17 years after, for whomever:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=700

Okay, the good, the bad, the ugly, the honest; written last Monday, venting:
http://paula-reed.com/blog/?p=838

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

No Words, Only Sound

Forgive the rambling nature of this entry—the lack of a single, coherent thesis.

I woke up this morning to the image of stricken young people. I didn’t know their faces, but I know that expression. I know that expression.

Then I saw a photo of a blood-spattered girl lying in a parking lot, and I thought, “In The New York Times? Have we gotten so sensational?” Because, you see, I haven’t watched television news in 18 ½ years. I have sheltered myself from those images.

And then I thought “Good for them, God damn it! Make America look at a blood-spattered girl in the denim shorts she put on before the concert, looking for the right combination of cute and comfortable. When she was excited to be going to the music festival. When she was young and had forever in front of her. Good for you, New York Times! Rub everyone’s face in it. Make them a feel a fraction of what I feel!”

I spent the morning on the edge of tears, my stomach churning, my head spinning.

I couldn’t take it anymore, and when classes were over I left school and went shopping for ingredients for chicken noodle soup and cornbread. Comfort food.

On the way home, I had NPR on, and the reporter was interviewing a country music journalist who had been at the concert. He talked about how they thought it was fireworks at first, just like us. Then they realized, and he was in the disabled people’s section, and he told of able-bodied people risking themselves to push wheelchairs and carry people. The reporter asked, “Do you mind if I play a clip?” and he said, “No.”

And I thought, “YES, YOU DO! YOU DO MIND! YOU JUST DON’T KNOW IT!”

How could he know whether or not he minded? He’d never been in a situation where, hours after fleeing for his life, carrying people who couldn’t walk and then filling his car with strangers while the woman in the car ahead of him was shot, he might be asked to listen to a video clip of the trauma. What a stupid God damned question!

I turned off my radio and sobbed and wailed, sounds I haven’t heard come out of me in years. Driving down the street filling my car with anguish. No words, only sound.

But good for you NPR. LISTEN TO THOSE PEOPLE, AMERICA! Listen to the shots and the screams. LISTEN!

And fuck you, NRA, for always insisting that now is not the time or place to talk about the issue of guns in America. Look, I get that a woman who has been wailing in her car and is now typing in all caps is not the person who should be making gun legislation, but at some point we have to start caring enough to call bullshit on people who say we can never even talk about the toll guns are taking on our country. Calmer heads than mine can have the conversation about balancing safety and freedom, but that conversation has to happen!

So LOOK, AMERICA at the blood-spattered youth and the vacant, shocked, staring eyes. LISTEN, AMERICA to the shots and the screams.

Me, I’m just going to retreat into Lorazepam and chicken soup. Talk amongst yourselves.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 3 Comments

Don’t Suspend Students. Empathize.

This is my response to this article in the New York Times.

In my 30+ years of teaching, I’ve found that one simple, three-word phrase (four, if you count the contraction) goes a long, long way in student discipline. When a kid is being defiant or inappropriate in a way that is escalating, I ask them to step into the hall or my office and tell them I’ll be out in a minute. I wrap up what I’m doing at the moment, join the student, and ask, “What’s going on?” Then I shut up and listen.

Nine times out of ten, it has nothing to do with class. They came into class already angry or wound up over something else, and just being allowed to express that makes a big difference. I don’t negate what the kid tells me. I don’t say things like, “That’s no reason to disrupt class.” They’re kids. They’re immature. What constitutes a reason to be disruptive to them is not the same as a reason to be disruptive to adults (who probably should be more disruptive than they are sometimes). And sometimes you would be amazed and saddened to know the weight some kids come into the classroom with.

I say something like, “Wow, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate. I can see how that might make it hard to concentrate.” If it is something about class, I say, “I get that you think this is dumb” or “I get that you’re frustrated” or something else that fits.

I don’t follow it with “but.” Kids know that everything before the “but” is bullshit.

If it’s a personal problem, and I can offer a bit of advice, I do. If it’s personal and huge and we can’t fix it, I ask if the student wants a hug, and I respect their answer, yes or no. I tell them I can see how it would be hard to do school with all that going on.

Once the kid has been able to say what they need to say, and I have affirmed that I hear and understand, I say, “Here’s the thing…” and I explain that what we’re doing in class is necessary, whether they see that at the moment or not, whether they feel up to it or not. “Life is like that,” I tell them, and I say all the things adults usually say up front, things like, “Not everything in life is fun or seems relevant at the time” or “life gets really hard sometimes, and we all still have to do our jobs” yada yada yada.

Kids are much more receptive to the all the usual adult admonitions when they feel like they’ve been heard and their feelings are important. Then I say, “Do you want to stay out here a few more minutes and get it together, or are you ready to come in with me?” They are almost always back in class in a few minutes, on task and calmer. If not, I usually send them to the counselor. I think maybe three or four times in all my years I have sent kids to the office. By the time I’ve determined that to be the best course of action, yeah, they need at least an in-school suspension, but that’s three kids in over 30 years.

On rare occasions, a bunch of kids are bouncing off the walls. I have been known to stop an activity dead in its tracks and lead the whole class through a discussion. I ask why we’re doing what we’re doing (which they know because we started the activity off this way every time). I ask how it relates to life, and if they don’t know, I ask question after question until they get there. I almost never tell kids anything important. I ask questions to guide them to the right conclusion, which they feel they’ve reached on their own and therefore value more than any proclamation I can ever make.

Yes, this is time-consuming. In my ACE class, I have a lot of kids with a lot on their plates, which means this has to happen almost daily. In that class, I have a phenomenal paraprofessional who is just as good at this as I am, so she can pull the kid in the hall or, if the class is working on an assignment, she keeps them on-track while I’m with the kid. But I did this in my traditional classes, as well. Sometimes it took 15 or 20 minutes to join the kid I’d sent out, and in the interim, they’d calmed down. And watching a kid get sent into the hall for some kind of mysterious talking-to gets the rest of the kids in a traditional class to get back to business pretty quickly.

In my experience, empathy works.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 1 Comment

My Work in Progress, or “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

Saturday morning, as I was walking my two dogs, I ran into an acquaintance I haven’t seen in years. (We used to take turns driving our two daughters—now with bachelor’s degrees—to Brownies. Yeah, it’s been a while.) She asked what I’ve been writing, which I realized is a pretty legit question, and a good thing to share.

Five years ago, I began a journey with a former student. Well, technically, I guess it started more like ten years ago. When I was her teacher in 2007 and 2008, she was a cocaine addict. At the beginning of the school year she was in an outpatient recovery program. Unfortunately, she continued to have drug problems and did not graduate, as she should have, the next year.

Danielle is the kind of person who makes an impression. She has always had the ability to seem simultaneously worldly-wise and terribly shortsighted. I met her as a high school junior, but sophomore—literally translated “wise fool”—suited her better. She is smart and articulate and was the kind of student who makes teachers want to tear their hair out with frustration because she dripped potential about which she was so cavalier.

Through the next five years she rode a roller coaster of recovery and relapse, eventually moving from cocaine to methamphetamine. Through it all, during the periods when she was sober, she would call me and we’d go have coffee. I was one of the people she excitedly texted when she got clean for a while and earned her GED. She has always had a special place in my heart, and teachers are, by nature, optimists, so I always believed she’d get her life together and move toward the bright future she should have.

Five years ago, she decided to get clean and stay clean. How that decision was different from previous decisions to get clean you must wait to find out, as you will see.

She also decided that she wanted to write a book about her experiences, but she struggled with how. An essay she could have managed, but a book is a different animal. She showed me what she had, and pretty soon, we decided maybe it would be better if we worked on it together. We began in November 2012, and we got together for an hour every week for a year. I would write down everything she told me, jumbled tales out of order, details fuzzily recalled because she was recounting events that had occurred while she was high, and I alternated getting more of the story from her with trying to figure out how to piece it into a book.

A year later Jefferson County elected a three-member corporate reform majority on the school board. This kind of thing can be a nightmare, especially when you teach kids who have a whole lot more than school on their plates. Their neighborhood school is often a lifeline for them, and a school board that undermines these schools abandons the kids I love, so the book went on hiatus. All my writing went into my blog, informing the community and firing up people to fight for our schools. Danielle was incredibly patient.

Honestly, looking back, we both see that the break wasn’t necessarily bad. See, even when an addict is committed to recovery, it’s not a smooth, easy process. While I was immersed in education issues, Danielle was working full time, going to college, and occasionally relapsing—usually just weekend benders, but it was clear she wasn’t quite where she needed to be to make this work.

When we got the school board majority recalled (yay, us!) and the smoke cleared, I was tired. I sort of felt “written-out.” I would look at my notes, and they weren’t fresh. I couldn’t remember exactly how they went together, and there are a lot of them, so it was overwhelming to think of picking it all back up. I wondered (and I never told you this, Danielle, so I’m sorry) whether I could just “ghost” out of ghost writing.

Then one of my students died of a heroin overdose. How could I even think of abandoning Danielle and this project? She had been unbelievably patient, and I have known from the beginning that her story is worth telling. It’s such a powerful story, and one I really think can help people. Plus, it’s just plain riveting. It’s a really good story, and I think the book was coming along really well. I just lost focus and lost steam. That was on me. If Danielle could pick herself up after a weekend of meth relapse and get back on the train, I could damned well get back on with her.

And then…she started police academy. Another hiatus, but again, worthwhile. Even though she graduated to find that her background is probably an insurmountable barrier to this career goal, she is setting her sights on corrections or some other form of law enforcement. She is three years completely clean, and we have been back to work with a vengeance. I hope to have the main body of the book completed before school starts next Thursday and the dénouement done shortly after that. Then it will be read by several people who know Danni well and can provide clarity and any necessary correction, and then it will be ready to go to my agent, who was pretty positive about the first hundred pages or so but hasn’t seen anything since.

I sincerely hope that before long you will be able to get the whole story at your local bookseller’s.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Writing and Being a Writer | 4 Comments

My Letter to Dr. Jason Glass, Superintendent of Jeffco Schools

Dear Dr. Glass:

I have been in leadership positions myself a number of times and have always felt that it was vital to get community input as I crafted the way forward for whatever group I led. This is why I am so pleased to see you actively seeking input from stakeholders all over Jeffco as you assume the helm as the school district superintendent. Your thoughtful answers posted on social media show that you are actively listening and taking into careful consideration all that people have to say. This is such a heartening sign in a district that has felt so disheartened in the past.

You have consistently asked three questions, and I wanted to provide my own perspective. I grew up in Jefferson County, graduating from Pomona in 1980. I married a Jeffco grad and raised two Jeffco grads. I have been a teacher in Jeffco for 30 years at Columbine High School. I have been a member of JCEA since I came to Jeffco and was the Communication Action Team chair on the operational board for three years. I still consider myself an active union member.

Your first question is “what should we keep doing?” The district has been working to rebuild the shattered trust between educators and district leadership since the utter dissolution of trust brought on by an anti-teacher, anti-public school board elected in 2013 and subsequently recalled. One of the ways this trust is being rebuilt is through a true partnership between the school board and the union to make sure that Jeffco provides the Schools Our Students Deserve—a vision created by the union and other Jeffco stakeholders. It has taken the form of projects like the community school model at Jefferson High School. Teachers in our district want to be active participants in meaningful reform. Please continue to include us, especially through our association, in efforts to do right by our kids.

Your second is “what should we stop doing?” This is tough. I know you’ve seen a lot of “stop focusing on data” and “stop SBB.” Your responses have been thoughtful, showing how complicated these issues are, and I genuinely appreciate that. I am fortunate to work for a principal who really tries to look at multiple data sources, and I realize that SBB has helped many schools. I guess my biggest concern stemming from both of these is the competition aspect that arises. I know many people feel that competition among schools creates better quality, and maybe that’s true in some ways, but I see schools spending more and more time on marketing themselves—time that should be spent on educating children. I honestly don’t know how you stop this. I just don’t think it’s healthy or creates a better educational experience for kids, so maybe I’m not asking you to stop it as much as I’m asking you to be aware of it and perhaps be concerned about it.

Finally, you ask what we should start doing. I’m going to go back to my union experience here because data shows that districts with strong unions get better results for kids. Having served on the JCEA board, I know intimately what our union’s priorities are, and they are entirely wrapped up in what is best for kids. Because we work hand-in-hand with JESPA, I know their union has the same priorities. When we talk about compensation, we talk about attracting and retaining the best educators, but we also spend a lot of time figuring out how we can make sure our most vulnerable kids get books in their hands and food in their stomachs, and we invest time, talent, and treasure in these efforts. I would like a superintendent who vocally supports our unions and counters negative national rhetoric about teachers’ unions with communication to the community about the positive partnerships the district has with JCEA and JESPA. I would like to see the district make a truly concerted effort helping us recruit at new teacher induction. In general, I would like district leadership to really understand that our association can do so much to help them, but we need the strength that can come from leaders who vocally support JCEA and JESPA.

Once again, I thank you for asking these questions and taking time to consider the many and varied answers you have received. I have a blog, and it has been my practice to publicly post my letters to Jeffco’s superintendent, so I will be posting this at paula-reed.com/blog. If you find the time to reply to this letter, it would be great if you could reply there so my readers can see.

Best regards,

Paula Reed

I am posting this exactly as I wrote it, but I should have said “anti-teacher, anti-public school board majority.” Leslie and Jill rocked during those hard years!

Posted in Education | 5 Comments

Stories Untold, Heroes Unsung

I just finished watching 13 Reasons Why, primarily because I am a high school teacher and I know my kids are watching it, and as an ACE teacher, I deal with all of the issues brought up in this series. Of course, I can’t watch it as a teenager. I can only watch it as one who has been a teenager and who is now a parent and a teacher. This adds layers. Add to that a recent event that occurred when I was about halfway through the show and that impacts my students and me. Anyway, this blog is for teens, so I hope readers share it as they see fit, especially with kids.

My first impulse is, of course, to point out that a school would never allow the kind of memorializing that is done for Hannah in the show. I want to emphasize all that Hannah misses out on—the chance to work things out with the boy she cared about and to see the suffering she caused, whether to appreciate and savor it or regret it and make amends.

But those things actually matter less than what this series tells us about people’s stories. In ACE, students have the chance to learn in each other’s stories, for years in small groups, last year through an anonymous reading of stories, which they could opt out of if they chose. I share my own story with them. In 13 Reasons Why, we see the stories of many of the kids, which makes Hannah’s understandable self-absorption more poignant.

I watched and thought of all the adult stories kids don’t know. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one in six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. How many female teachers have you had? If you can count six female adults in your life—parents, friends’ parents, neighbors, bosses, counselors, teachers, assistant principals, food service workers, custodians, secretaries, classroom aides—statistics suggest that at least one of them has survived this crime. As your list of adult females grows, then the stats keep climbing. About three percent of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Do you know 33 adult men? Then there is a chance you know a male survivor.

It’s hard to pin down statistics on incest and child sexual abuse, because this is a vastly underreported crime, but current estimates indicate one in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. Most of these kids grow up. Some commit suicide. Some you never meet because they become drug addicts and sex workers and enter the corrections system before you ever meet them. Many of them become your teachers, or your friends’ parents, or even your parents. Some become abusers themselves, but most do not, and if you don’t know those survivors’ stories, you will never know what they have survived.

About 3.7 percent of the population has seriously contemplated suicide. Of them, about .5 percent attempt it. Fewer complete the act. That means roughly three out of every 100 adults you know (and I’ll bet you know at least 100) have contemplated suicide. They’ve been in that dark place. And they are still here.

Go beyond the adults you know. Think about the ones you pass in the street, the ones at the grocery store, the ones bringing you dinner at a restaurant, the ones who smile and take your name at the orthodontist’s office and tell you to have a seat.

Sometimes life is a huge struggle, and it feels like you have to have the strength of Hercules to make it from one day to the next. If you think you can’t do it, look around you at all the people who have made it to adulthood. You have no idea how many of them are epic heroes, just for being there. When you think of all the shit that can go really, really wrong in life, the truth is that almost every adult you know has fought a monumental battle to stand before you or even pass you at the mall. They don’t look like heroes. They look like you or like your parents or grandparents. They are beautiful and confident or small and almost invisible, and everything in between, but they are there.

You don’t know their stories, but they have them, and before you do what the teens in 13 Reasons Why (and in real life) do and assume that adults won’t understand and should be kept out of the loop, consider for a moment what you do not know about them.

And if one of us proves inadequate to the task, look around some more, because we are here, we survivors. If you fall in the street, sure, some people will pass you by. Some will ask, “Are you OK?” and then quickly assume everything is fine if you’re too embarrassed to say “No, I need help.” But you won’t be on the pavement long before someone stops to help you to your feet. After all, hardly a soul walking around you has gone a lifetime without falling. No one is without scars. It really is human nature to want to help. I do. I have heard callous comments from colleagues, sure, but I hear far more compassionate talk about students in the teacher’s workroom. Why? Because we care, and because no matter what you’re going through, one of us has probably been there and come out the other side.

One more thing, should this find its way to my students this summer: Live in peace, all friends and classmates of Matt, whom we lost last week. I want to see the rest of you back next year.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Problem

I once read an interview of a nutritionist who said if he could eliminate one thing from the American diet, it would be cheese. That’s right—cheese is what’s causing the obesity epidemic. Not candy, not soda; in a fast food meal, it’s not the Coke, the burger, or mayonnaise or fries—it’s just the cheese.

After the shootings at school, a radio talk show host asked his guest what was the one thing we could about school shootings. The guest tried to explain that it was complicated, and the host cut him off and said, “I’m asking for the one thing.” Like there was one.

I hear all the time that in education teachers are the problem. Their unions are the problem. Parents are the problem. Fix any one of these things, and you will eliminate the problem, and schools will run like well-oiled machines, turning out a perfectly polished product.

This is lazy thinking about any significant problem we face. If the problem is significant, it is most likely complex, but to chalk it up to one element usually means it’s an element a single individual cannot fix. This absolves people of any responsibility to do anything about it. It’s usually an element that cannot be removed, and this means we can bitch about it forever without being able (read: expected) to do anything.

I don’t know how to solve all the problems facing us. I mean, poverty is a huge piece of a lot of our problems, so if we could just eliminate that one thing, we’d make a lot of headway. But poverty is, in and of itself, a significant problem, so there’s no easy solution there.

I do know that the only way to eat a bear is one bite at a time. In schools, instead of labeling parents as “the problem,” we need to find out what supports parents need. Maybe instead of labeling teachers and their unions as “the problem,” we should invite them to be part of the solution.

Here are some things I do about the problems I see:

  1. I teach kids who struggle in school. I try my damnedest to figure out what it is about school that’s not working for them and help them navigate those challenges.
  2. At parent-teacher conferences I spend a lot of time giving parents concrete strategies to deal with the home barriers to their child’s success. They are usually very appreciative.
  3. I have served in a leadership capacity in organizations that tackle the problems I see in the world but cannot fight on my own, organizations like my union and my church.
  4. I have walked door to door for many miles over many hours for the causes and candidates I think can help solve the problems I see in my community.
  5. I have taken steps to bring people of disparate opinions together in my life and in my classroom with the sole objective of reminding all of us of our basic humanity.

None of this will solve any of the problems in my society. These steps I take will, however, chip away at the elements that are within my grasp. These are my bites out of the bear.

We cannot give up on ourselves or each other. We cannot just complain and label each other as “the problem.” It’s clichéd, but true: If you’re not part of the solution [not the whole solution, just part], you’re part of the problem.

Posted in Education, Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

Good Schools for Every Kid

No matter where she goes (like Bethune-Cookman), Betsy DeVos can’t catch a break. Some of that is backlash to her connection to Trump, something arguably out of her control. For me, she represents a total failure of too many leaders to make any real commitment to our children.

I’ve written a lot about why school “choice” does not exist for many students. A 15-year-old girl who arrives to school late every day because she must roust her hung-over parent from bed in the morning is going to the neighborhood school, no matter how many “choices” her alcoholic parent is offered. The kid who is the fallback childcare provider for a two-job parent is going to whatever school he or she can run to as soon as Mom or Dad walks in the door from the night shift in the morning. There are more kids like this than we like to think about. The more “choices” we spread limited resources among, the fewer resources for kids who are not merely not “born on first base”; they were born miles from the ballpark.

But it is legitimate to ask why children who can take advantage of choice must be “stuck” in “failing” schools.

I have that question, too. I just think the answer is to fix the schools. I also think the real reason we haven’t is because it’s neither cheap nor easy, while turning the mess over to charters is, relatively speaking. At least, it doesn’t cost us any more, and we just leave shaping the future to charter companies, despite the fact that many are not run by educators and there is too little oversight of them. Some charters get excellent results (especially when they are filled with kids born on first base), while others do worse than neighborhood schools. Statistically, it’s a crapshoot. Like I said, no real commitment from our leaders here.

The thing is, the problems struggling neighborhood schools face are not insurmountable, and contrary to popular belief, educators and their unions can do a lot to help. Never forget, educators are their unions, as these are democratically-run organizations. Educators understand the root causes of low achievement in schools, and their voices are vital to finding solutions. Beware leaders who vilify teachers’ unions; I promise, their agenda has little to do with providing a quality education for all. Educators, on the other hand, directly benefit from good schools, because a student’s learning environment is an educator’s work environment. Engaged, optimistic, healthy children are a joy to work with. Oppressed, hopeless kids in the classroom every day shatter their teachers’ souls.

As for solutions, take Rhiannon Wenning and her colleagues at Jefferson High School: The Jefferson articulation area is one of the most challenging areas in Jeffco. Eighty-five percent of its student body is economically disadvantaged. Transience and language barriers are both huge obstacles for many kids. The myth is that the worst teachers get stuck in schools like this, where they sit around doing nothing while kids’ futures are destroyed. The reality is that Jefferson area educators and the community have banded together to create a community school. They have examined the root causes of what prevents students and families from being successful and determined the real needs—things like language classes for adults, healthcare access, job assistance, childcare. This community is working together to make Jefferson High School a hub of the community where families can get help with all of these things. The concept is called a community school, and I am proud to say that my union has supported this effort. I am so proud to call Rhiannon my union sister. She knows her kids don’t really have a choice, so she’s working her butt off to make sure the school they have is the amazing one they all deserve.

Right now, this isn’t costing a lot of taxpayer money, but the fact is that Jeffco schools need more resources. Up front, I know people don’t want to have to pay more, but the payoff comes later, when kids who would have languished in prison on the taxpayer’s tab or ended up on public assistance have the education and resilience they need to become adults who contribute to society. Make no mistake; many of the strongest national proponents of school choice are also proponents of private prisons. They invest in both. They are the ones who gobble up your tax dollars, first through unaccountable for-profit education management companies, then through private prisons for the kids they leave behind.

This next bit is going to make people grumpy. Please keep in mind, I’m at the end of my career. What I’m about to say is of no benefit to me. Sooner or later, Colorado is going to have to face a basic business reality (which should be right up the alley of those who insist schools should be run like businesses). You have to pay for talent. Sports teams know this. Large corporations looking for CEO’s know this. Tech development companies get it. It’s true of teachers, as well. The number of students in college teacher prep programs in Colorado has declined by almost 25 percent in the last five years. That may have something to do with teacher salaries declining 7.7 percent in the last ten. Real commitment to kids means addressing this problem—another thing unions try to accomplish and for which they are routinely vilified.

I truly believe that if everyone in America either made the commitment Rhiannon and her colleagues have made, or at the very least supported the efforts of educators and community leaders like her, every school could be worthy of the children who walk through its doors.

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Six People with Different Political Views Walk into a Dinner Party…

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Starting at end of table closest to camera and going left to right: Paula, Kelly, Krista, (empty seat Tory, who took the picture), Kavita, Alan

In May of 2011 I got into a Facebook discussion about politics. Well, I’ve gotten into several discussions before and since, but this one was significant. It was on the Facebook wall of a high school classmate, Alan. Another friend of his chimed in, and we were pretty much on opposite sides of the issue, but here’s the catch—the exchange was respectful and thoughtful. Kind of a rarity in Facebook politics. The friend’s name is Kelly, and he sent me a message saying that he wanted to friend me, and I said sure, and many respectful disagreements, “happy birthdays,” and little thumbs up on pictures ensued.

Several months or perhaps a year later, we three—one conservative, one liberal, and one left-of-center moderate—decided to get together at a local Mexican restaurant and have a civilized political discussion over food and a few beers. Hearkening back to the gathering between Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sergeant James Crowley (Google if you need a refresher) in 2009, we called this gathering the “Beer Summit.” We had a great time; we talked about politics and our families and jobs, laughed a lot—all good.

I don’t know why it took so long, but we didn’t meet again for years. Then we saw our country being viciously torn apart over politics this past political season. Alan and I were adamantly anti-Trump, and while I didn’t adore Hillary Clinton, I was okay voting for her, while Alan was pretty disgusted that she seemed to be his only viable option. Kelly felt the same way about Trump. As he has often said, there were 17 Republican candidates, and Trump was his 17th choice, but he was voting for him.

Last summer, it was time for Beer Summit 2.0. We met at the same restaurant. Again, we had a lively time, but at the end, we agreed that it was too unfocused and there were just too many issues. Still, it felt healthy to be sharing ideas and engaging in respectful discourse about these issues.

And here we are today. We live in a country so divided. Family relationships have been splintered over politics, holiday dinners spoiled, friendships severed. I have seen friends post to their Facebook walls that they want their other “friends” who voted “wrong” to unfriend them. It takes a lot for me to unfriend someone, but I did hide the posts of a woman I once worked with because her updates were so venomous that they were sullying every memory I had of her.

It had clearly become time to move the Beer Summit 3.0 beyond the three of us. Last Saturday I invited the original other two participants and two more friends, one conservative and one liberal, to join us. I also included my husband, who often refers to himself as a “recovering Republican.” The new conservative participant, Krista, was a student who competed on my speech team in my very early years of teaching. She is now a radio talk show host and a newspaper columnist. I hadn’t seen her in 25 years, but through her Facebook posts and writings, I knew her to be thoughtful—a commentator rather than a provocateur. Plus, it was just a real treat to see her again. The new liberal, Kavita, I had met once years before at a friend’s birthday party. We hit it off, friended each other on Facebook, and then somehow never got together again. What I loved about her Facebook posts was her tendency to make very critical remarks about Trump voters and then kind of take herself to task about learning to be more open.

What I did not remember and found out at our gathering was that Kavita and Kelly had gotten into a heated exchange on one of my posts several months earlier. You know, one of those more typical exchanges people get into when discussing politics online with someone they’ve never met face-to-face.

This time we met at my house. I made a soup that has one broth but allows people to choose from a variety of ingredients to put in the broth—a symbol of shared values but different beliefs about how best to serve those values. Kavita is from India and shared a taste of her home country, samosas, which were new to me and delicious!

We had originally set the reliability of news sources and foreign policy as our topics, but the best laid plans of mice and men and all, the conversation followed its own organic path. We talked about a lot of things.

Three people there had dealt with infertility. Two had adopted children and one had gone the invitro route. This led to discussion about reproductive choice, and with one Catholic and one woman who had gone through invitro, obviously there were intense differences of opinion, but encompassing that was compassion, having shared the pain of infertility.

We talked about immigration, and while there was no consensus about how best to manage immigration, there was a communal belief that our country is worth sharing and that we should, indeed, share it.

I had set the evening to last three hours, but it flowed effortlessly for four. I think everyone genuinely liked each other. It would have been hard not to. Each member was engaging and funny and kind. At the end, there was no singing Kumbaya, but as we went around the table and summed up the experience, the recognition of each other’s humanity and decency was a recurring theme. We are already talking about meeting again.

I asked one thing in return for the meal. I asked each participant to write a reflection that I could post here, in my blog. I will post this when I have everyone’s contribution.

Krista talked about it on the radio the following Monday, and her co-host just couldn’t seem to get the value of pure discussion. He wanted a debate. He wanted winners and losers. Krista stood firm on the value of civil discussion, the exchange of ideas. Alan spoke on the evening of the dinner about a professor in a class he’s currently taking who said that discussion is the only true way we will ever find peace.

My own part of this is two pages, single-spaced, and the added reflections will make for a very long blog post. I hope you’ll stick with it and read all of it. Then I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing. Invite friends with very different views to break bread together, wade in troubled waters together, but always remember to help each other back to solid, common ground. I truly believe we can save our country one shared meal at a time.

Alan

First of all, thank you, Paula and Tory, for opening up your home for this opportunity to share not only a great meal, but also allowing us in and inviting us to share our thoughts and beliefs both with those with whom we may agree and those with whom we may disagree. That idea—opening up your home—is at the heart of this reflection.

I am not a Catholic, anymore. I’m not even sure that I should call myself a Christian. I’m just a guy who believes what I believe, morally, spiritually and politically. Sometimes those beliefs fit into a more traditional and accepted framework. A lot of the time they do not.

I do know this, though, the idea of “communion” is common in both Catholicism, and in the wider Christian world. I suspect that the idea of coming together, gathering in communion, with our fellow human beings is at the very center of most religious beliefs.

As a Catholic, “communion” usually just meant standing in line to get a little, flat wafer of bread. I’m not sure that I ever placed much emphasis on the “gathering” part of the word. I should have. Maybe we all should.

The first definition of the word communion that pops up in Google is: “The sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”

Webster’s definition number three is: “Intimate fellowship or rapport.”

Both of those of those definitions describe our Beer Summit experience: literally meeting in a friend’s home, in a communal way, to break bread together and engage in “fellowship and rapport.”

This has been a fundamental, and essential, human activity, since the dawn of humankind. It is also something that is fundamentally and essentially missing from our modern, digital, social-media, echo chamber, zero-sum world, and, unfortunately, in our political discourse and political leadership.

The intent was not to change minds, convince, to score points or to “win” anything.

The idea was to begin to see, to know, to listen and to hear another human being, and, hopefully, to recognize and to acknowledge in that other person that which is so much a part of ourselves: the need to understand the world around us, and our desire to live our lives in a moral way, whether or not that understanding reflects our own.

We are not called upon to agree on everything. We don’t have to agree on everything. It’s much healthier for our nation if we don’t agree on everything. Our political system is not built upon the idea of total, absolute, agreement. Our system is designed for compromise and consensus, for reasoned debate among people who may disagree, yet, have at their core a shared concern for the greater good, and a shared love of country and community, and through that common core set of love and concern, they are able to work through their differences—without thoughts of “winning and losing”—to see that the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number. Somehow we have lost this thread, in our national dialogue.

It was only six people eating soup and breaking bread, but it’s a start, a really good start. It was a really good start at returning us to the way things are supposed to work. A really good start at refuting and rejecting the way things are working…or, more accurately, NOT working, in our nation, and in our world, today.

What if this happened in every neighborhood, in every community?

Communion.

Community.

Commonality.

They’ve all gotta start somewhere.

Why not with a Beer Summit?

Kavita

Let me thank you and Tory again for hosting such a lovely and much needed gathering. It takes those who truly put their words into actions, so few of us, to heal from such a divided states of America.

I want to give you my insights (following a week of careful percolation) in the following areas:

First, the human interactions between the 6 of us. They were simply the most healing, honest and loving displays of humanity following a devastating election. In that room of almost 6 strangers, I felt a level of comfort and closeness, I have not felt in years. Partly I would imagine due to the relative anonymity between us. But also due to the bond of trust so to speak in allowing me to share some truths about myself, my experiences and my beliefs, that will surprise many in my inner circle. I told my 13 year old that night, that if there was an emergency, I would call on any of the people I met that night, to come and pick her up. Such was the innate decency within each and every one of you that I saw that night.

Second, on humanizing the non HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] voters.  I have focused long and hard on “forgiving” the Trump voters, those who “voted their conscience” and every variation of a voter who did not vote for HRC, knowing that she was the only viable choice. As a pragmatist, we are Americans first. However, my anger towards the non HRC voters, most notably the Trump voters, is an open wound, whose scab continues to fall off. More so as an immigrant, on whose tribe the White House has declared an unrelenting and cruel war. Putting a face, a family on these voters and the rationale that led to each of their choices provided some needed healing.

Finally, as I reflected on the discussion from our evening, I have more questions, that take me back to a sense of despair again. Less painful this time around. While every one of the conservatives I met that evening are good, decent, kind people, given the election again today, I wonder of that they would cast the same vote again. Knowing what they know now about President Trump, if the election were to be held today between the two contenders (HRC vs. Trump), I don’t know if they would vote differently. I say this, not out of any sense of clairvoyance but because of what I took way from our discussion. Let me first acknowledge, what I did also feel was sincere support for myself as an immigrant, as a woman and as a liberal from every one of you. But I also heard a sincere support for some Republican policies under President Trump. Unconstitutional immigrant enforcement (which is what his policy is before it got denied by the federal courts); repealing ACA; depriving women of their reproductive rights; restoring/recognizing America as a Christian nation. And as “hot” as Speaker Ryan is, he does not support equal rights for all Americans. And not to be outdone, our liberals got caught by in overwrought indignation about pointless moral foibles.

Until the next time…J

Krista

These are divisive times. I ask myself what I can do to bridge understanding. I’ve decided it’s not enough to point out the excesses of both sides or to urge people to listen to both sides of an argument before making a decision. I do both of these on air daily as a talk show host yet feel I should do more. Paula Reed has created a remedy for division which should be replicated. She held a “Beer Summit” for six guests with different political beliefs and backgrounds. Rather than avoid tough subjects, we deliberately discussed politics and religion. It was wonderful—great food, nice people, and good discussion. When I looked at the clock on the way home I realized we’d been together talking, laughing and disagreeing for over four hours. Paula Reed’s Beer Summit recipe can and should be replicated: invite a group of thoughtful individuals with differing opinions, add beer, wine, and great food (plus chocolate cake), and stir with respect.

Tory

Sharing perspectives on the state of affairs in this country was invigorating and engaging. I went into this with the intention of keeping an open mind and to trying to find ways to reach across the divides and understand other points of view. While we certainly made some progress to that end, I think it will take further effort on my part to understand some points of view more deeply. In the end though, there are points of view that, while I might fully understand them, will not in the end change my own point of view. Modify that point of view? Sure. My arguments will become more sound and will reach into the evidence presented by those I tend to disagree with. Good social and political policy comes from this kind of engagement and in my mind is exactly why we are having such issues in our political discourse these days. Factions have become locked in their own echo chambers of confirmation bias on the internet, and especially in Washington. Until we get back to the days of reaching across the aisle and having a drink with our political opponents, progress will be slow and plodding at best with much sound and fury signifying very little.

Our political systems could do with a bit of what I think we all experienced at Beer Summit 3. Sitting down with people that don’t share your political or even religious beliefs, and truly engaging with their humanity, it is mind broadening and healing, restoring your basic faith in humanity. I was able to see that we aren’t really all that far apart and many of our differences, while they are very real and can certainly cause conflict, are based on many values we all hold in common. In most ways I think we could agree on what living a good life in the world looks like, though we might disagree on the fundamental internal motivations that produce it.

While we had a diverse mix of points of view from political, social, economic, and religious perspectives, there are obviously many others to try and understand. This was a great beginning to a very complex conversation. I very much enjoyed and valued the perspectives that everybody brought to the table. As I get older, I find I want to understand at a deeper level that cannot happen without conversation and actually engaging people with different points of view. I encourage all who found this little party of ours inspirational to try it yourselves. Bring together thoughtful people you respect but disagree with and try it out. Let’s bring back the “salon” of days past where dinner parties were organized specifically to engage with people of differing opinions. This may be one of the ways we begin to climb out of the political morass we find ourselves in and discover the humanity in each other so that we can work together to find compromise and common purpose for the good of us all.

Kelly

It’s been said that sharing food is the most intimate act you can perform with your clothes on.

When Paula suggested Beer Summit III be at her and Tory’s home, I was pleasantly surprised. First, that we were having another beer summit so soon after the 2016 election. Second, that we were having another beer summit at all, given the division that had overtaken the country during and since the election. That Paula added to our original Beer Summit group of one liberal (herself), one left-leaning moderate (Alan), and one conservative (myself) by inviting one right-leaning moderate (Tory), another liberal (Kavita) and another conservative (Krista) made it all the more imperative that I not miss this event! And I feel blessed that I was part of it!

Given all the vitriol that had taken place on Facebook over the past year, I was impressed that Paula was still willing to gather people of differing opinions, beliefs, and passions. I initially met Paula on Facebook through our mutual friend, Alan. In the past year, especially, I’ve had several Facebook friends un-friend me, and I, myself, have un-followed several Facebook friends. Our passionate political posts (alliteration – you’re welcome) have just been too much to take for myself and for others. Facebook is a lousy way to keep friends if you have too many political posts. What started out as a fun way to catch up with people I hadn’t seen or heard from in years, became a horrible way to find out the politics of those same people. It was like a competition to see who could best justify the candidate they were supporting, and why everyone else should support that candidate too. There was a lot of name-calling and cramming of “facts” into post after political post. There were friends posting links to articles or commentaries to justify political positions, and then having others that disagreed with those articles and commentaries questioning the sources.

It just got me too riled up some days, but I kept going back to it. It was my unhealthy addiction to Facebook that made me give up Facebook for Lent.

That said, I was looking forward to meeting another liberal, Kavita, whom I had gotten into it with on Facebook after I commented and/or posted something in response to one of Paula’s posts. I was also looking forward to meeting another conservative, Krista, whom I had listened to on the radio for the past couple of years.

The evening did not disappoint, but it wasn’t the fireworks that I halfway expected. First off, the generosity of Paula and Tory opening up their home and preparing a meal for us was just very nice. The appetizer that Kavita brought and the soup, bread and dessert Paula made were delicious! We also enjoyed beer, wine, and a night of great conversation, getting to know one another by sharing and discussing our backgrounds, passions, differences and commonalities.

It is much easier to dismiss someone on Facebook than it is in person. My last interaction with Kavita prior to the beer summit did not end well. I thought there was no way I ever needed to worry about sending a friend request to her, that rude liberal that just didn’t “get it.” Beer Summit III changed all that. I got to know Kavita face to face, instead of Facebook to Facebook. We shared stories, opinions, laughter, commonalities and respectful disagreements.

Meeting Krista was another highlight of the evening, as she is superb at articulating her opinions (doing it professionally as a radio talk-show host), and we share a lot of the same conservative opinions. As Tory correctly pointed out, I’m a bit of a fanboy. Or fangirl. I can’t remember which.

Tory and I shared our thoughts and opinions away from the group while getting ready for the dinner to begin, and then again while clearing dishes from the dining room. He made some interesting comments about my strong pro-life stance that made me want to know more about his solution to the “problem of abortion.” I’m looking forward to continuing that conversation!

My friendship with Alan goes way back to our meeting each other at CSU as fellow cartoonists and art students. We have always differed politically, but have more than made up for those differences through our use of humor and the ability to make each other laugh. That we connected on Facebook several years ago after “life happened” with each of us getting married, raising children, etc. was one of the positives that have come from being on Facebook.

Meeting Paula on Facebook, and then in person at Beer Summits I and II, started this whole coming together and “let’s agree to disagree” on some things, but agreeing on more things than I thought possible. She is a great listener – both compassionate and passionate, and tremendously respectful of differing opinions. In the short time I’ve known her, she has become one of my favorite liberals!

Overall, Beer Summit III exceeded my expectations. It was filled with friendly discussions, passionate debate, respectful listening, and heartfelt sharing. All the while having many moments punctuated with lots of laughter. That everyone humbled themselves by opening up about their lives, backgrounds, and how they came to be where they are now on the political spectrum, gave me hope for the future. I did not have that hope since the start of the political TV ads in 2016.

I would recommend a beer summit to anyone who has been wondering how we will survive as a nation without having another civil war. Breaking bread with a few people who may not share your political affiliation is a great start to overcoming the divide we currently find ourselves in. I find myself not being as judgmental of others on Facebook with whom I politically disagree. I just don’t think Facebook is a good venue for convincing others of why you are right and they are wrong. Getting to know someone personally, in person, allows for a better understanding and a better humanity. Seeing someone’s smile has a way of disarming me, no matter how entrenched I am in my beliefs and opinions.

And because of Beer Summit III, I now have three new friends who are “Facebook official.”

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