The Kamala Threat

I think the Democrat establishment feels threatened right now, by the gravitational pull of voters from their left, and plans to throw anyone who can be packaged as remotely progressive-ish out there. But Beto is a no-go. He’s a pretender whose claim to fame is that he lost to Ted Cruz. A superficial look at that tells me that must sting worse than losing to Trump (and that’s pretty sad-sorry Clinton fans). Kirsten Gillarybrand? Nah. She tries but doesn’t come off comfortable in her newly found faux-progressive skin. Buttigieg? Hard to tell right now. He is young, energetic, well liked, and supports a lot of the positions progressives hold dear. It could just be that flooding the market and letting competition sort them out is the solution to the immediate problem at hand, but the risk lies in voters falling into that lesser-evilism trap.

One thing that’s obvious: the Democrats will definitely cover the spectrum to distract from and try to dilute the raw energy in what has become, for all intent and purpose, “The AOC wing of the party” that they just can’t deny or control. Not to put pressure on her specifically, it’s just that she has proven that it can be done. She has shown that there are good people out there willing to lead within the Democratic party, and that the entrenched two-party establishment bears ALL the responsibility for denying voters those exciting (non-racist, non-bigoted, non-classist, non-misogynistic…) things to vote for.

So lately, the party establishment seems to be giving the okay (or at least pretending to) for more mainstream candidates to dip their toes into a little semi- Democratic Socialism. Millionaire media talk hosts on cable channels disguised as news shows are still a little reluctant to roll it around the critical-thought centers of their brains, instead grilling any who dare mention free-college or universal health care or living wages… and spitting out some version of “How can we possibly afford that?”  But I have not seen cable pundits respond to this simple counterargument:

“We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do, but when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and when it comes to unlimited war we seem to be able to invent that money very easily,” (Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)

You would think that the supposed liberal, left-wing “mainstream media” would be pushing this, but Bernie-thought is a threat to THEM (the establishment and the media outlets depending on establishment money) as well. He he gets painted as the spoiler for true Democrats (“Yeah, but he’s NOT a Democrat” is their mantra) because true Democrats, I guess, side with war and tax cuts for billionaires, not with the people?

I have been trying to figure out whose cause the party truly champions. My N.Y. Assembly person (D) was a bit irked when I met with her following H.C.’s loss and I suggested opening up primaries to independent’s (if “big tents”, unity, and pulling in votes/voters is the goal). Indies tend to go “D”, I told her. She got a little angry, griping about providing “him” with support and infrastructure when he’s not even a Democrat. I understand that on the national level, the electoral college was the deciding factor (more so than bodies, because Clinton had the numbers on her side), but build a base and inspire buy-in at the state level, and that increased number of voters will statistically push the electorate towards the left.

I almost said “then Democrats don’t have any reason to get their hands on his email/donor list”, but we have generally had friendly meetings in the past and I wanted to try and keep it that way. Seems the party really resents him, both for his courage to push policies they dare not, and for his ability to inspire voters they will not. They have no interest in winning votes, just demanding them I guess. But they aren’t stupid, so they figure on suckering Berners in.

Which leads me to Warren.

An existing Dem office holder with that high of a profile does not run for the presidency without some strategic thinking; some meetings with leaders/insiders; discussions regarding platform; surrender of some principles, etc. Warren is acceptable progressive-bait, and while her antagonizing finance-sector creeps is fun to watch, loosening the nuts and bolts of their crimes has led to no substantial restructuring of the economy, no repeal of citizens united, minimal consequences (e.g. job loss and/or jail time) for the wealthiest and tip-toppiest of the criminal executives whose wealth and position are created (not earned) by soaking the nation and the masses. Lots of lefty talk, but small threat to the system that is.

Still, though, my dream ticket is a Warren/Sanders or Sanders/Warren. I don’t care who’s on top, but the Democrat establishment has not indicated honesty or consistency of will in tackling the issues AOC, Sanders, and Warren have made their names speaking out on. Quite the opposite, I think. Sputtering, pretending, deflecting, and denying the will of the voters on those issues while still feeling either entitled to the votes, or willing to sacrifice America to the greater evil instead of holding themselves accountable to the greater good.

That’s why I honestly think a Trump presidency was their 2016 fallback plan. They figured, worst case: after suffering through a Trump presidency, the Democrats could play hero and offer up to their voters someone slightly more center-right than Obama or Clinton and have it feel like that is a totally acceptable “lesser evil”.

Which leads me to Kamala Harris.

Her status as the party’s pick for 2020 seems pretty obvious. 20,000 people do not just show up in Oakland for a campaign kickoff . What is she, like the friggin’ Beatles doing an impromptu rooftop concert in the middle of London? Like people just hear her Kamala noise and wander inspired into the streets?

Hardly.

And this is why SHE’S the threat. Clearly there is an apparatus that would like to paint her to be the presumptive. She is smooth enough to say the almost right thing, and she ticks the superficial demo check list in enough places to get the resentful identity politic-ers heartily on board to push back the progressives.

But has it been so long since she laughed about cracking down on the poor parents of truant children? So long since she was dismissive of people wanting more schools and fewer jails, describing her need to have three locks on her door as evidence that you need to put people and keep people in jail. Stayed tough on low level/poor criminals and not-so-tough on banker crimes? Oversaw lawyers from her office who argued against early release for good behavior and time spent fighting wildfires for indentured servitude wages?

When the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population because of the terrible conditions created by overcrowding, state attorneys argued that “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”  (Nonprofit Quarterly, August 10, 2018)

Disclosure, Harris claims to have been unaware of this, but her willingness to incarcerate and to prioritize prisons over schools makes me wonder.

We need transparency to fully vet her as a candidate. We need to see her donor list. We need to know who chartered buses and got permits to bring in the crowd that showed up.

AND we need to go beyond that.

If freshman lawmakers are being oriented to their jobs/expectations by a string of CEOs and bankers, and being told “You’re in over your heads” and “You don’t know how the game is played” by rats like Gary Cohn, then we need to know who puts that schedule and list of speakers together and the first people we ask are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Then we go to Cohen and have him describe the game and how it’s played in his estimation.

Once we know the game, we decide whether on not we like it, want it and/or want to scrap it or change the rules. I’m not sure that Harris would be on board with that.

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Some Socialism is Bad

Do you think crony capitalism, oligarchy disguised as two-party rule, and trickle-down economics is destroying stable employment opportunities and families, and that now more children come to school not prepared to learn? You may have noticed the changing students, and families. Some teachers are lucky to teach in wealthy districts or may work in schools that engineer their enrollment, and therefore see little or none of this. But most know that kids are coming with needs far deeper and more often now healing has to come before teaching.

Some socialism is bad. The type that allows the government (aka Wall St & corporations) and super wealthy to skip out on debts, evade taxes, buy policy and politicians, bail out big banks, maintain a revolving door between these criminal enterprises and Washington, fund endless war and terrorist organizations who will be temporary allies but future enemies…bad socialism for sure. The type that supports the working class and families that are the producers/consumers and lifeblood of the economy and nation? Good.

The system that is has not earned the right to judge me, my students, my own children or my school with tests that determine how well we can all be hammered into their failing system.

Time to Fight

Why should educators, as professionals, be expected to willingly participate in the destruction of society-in the end making their jobs as educators even more difficult? The demands of so-called “education reform” that ignore childhood-development norms lead to practices that further that destruction.

To begin with, it’s not good pedagogy, and regardless of how much “grit and rigor” and “raised bars” rhetoric you infuse it with, it does more harm than good. No matter how many new-fangled games and technological gadgets are inserted into the daily school routine, there is no making up for the losses we suffer when our strategies move away from the foundational practices that were once the norm, and we need to vigorously fight back as a profession to insist on the respect we deserve for the value we have always brought and still bring.

A little preachy maybe, but to give a simple example of where we can be led or pushed astray:

Have you caught yourself wondering why student handwriting looks so terrible these days?

Maybe it’s because finger-paintin’ and clay-squeezin’ are now things of a distant kindergarten past. Students spend less time developing the hand strength, muscle-memory and fine-motor coordination that once led to good, legible handwriting. But Common Core, and “college and career-ready” demands mean that efforts in instruction and accountability target skills that demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests rather than some antiquated concept of handwriting and its importance.

Thinking gets delivered digitally these days anyways, and figuring that the loss of hand strength and dexterity would make it hard to hold a book and turn pages-let alone grip a pencil: we need to inject more software, screens and keyboards into the classroom  to redesign that ancient paradigm of kids writing with pencils and reading actual books and whatnot.

See how technology can fill the gaps where humanity once was?

But (you might ask) if the strength, dexterity and coordination to grip a pencil and make it write with one hand isn’t there, how can we realistically expect our little learners being whipped over our raised bars to use both hands, find and hold that home row, and execute the equivalent of tickling the QWERTY ivories to express their thoughts in writing?

Don’t sweat it. We can start formal keyboarding instruction in the primary years. Where to fit it into the school day, or how we can  expect classroom teachers being pounded into HEDI scale slots (who may or may not be typists themselves) to eke out time in the day to teach typing are questions we needn’t bother with. There are plenty of software programs available that can lead students through typing lessons. No teacher required-just give them a laptop, a pair of headphones, and let the hunting and pecking begin!

I’m being a bit snarky here, but my point is that what should be a primarily human endeavor (i.e., helping our youngest learners mature and grow into capable young citizens) is being dehumanized by that thing called “reform” and all the gadgetry (in hardware, software, approaches and assessments) that has ensued.  The demand for data to feed the reform monster has led to participation in and compliance with programs and practices that will efficiently generate that data and this pushes us further from the societal goals that build and strengthen an informed citizenry, and towards serving economic interests that care little about the realities faced in the schools and classrooms of our neediest communities.

We are being driven to place artificial, statistical value on human beings, and it’s no wonder that the consequences include us now having to spend more and more time on social/emotional/psychological issues- to instituting anti-bullying and social media awareness programs, teaching character education in school because outside of school there’s less character to be found. We are scrambling to find ways to insert more humanity wherever and whenever we can.

 I have written in the past about what education reform has looked like, what it apparently means to those who have imposed it upon the children of others and those who serve them, and what it really should mean-what it needs to mean, if we are going to reclaim our educational souls and reverse this societal decay. The demand that more and more data be produced, that this data be statistically normed so that it can take the place of individual children and what we know about their needs, and that we call this “value added” exemplifies where we have been misled.  

I would argue that the more time we spend pouring in this way over spreadsheets and assessment data, the more technology and gadgets we put between us and young learners, the less time we spend looking at and connecting with the actual children right there in front of us. That’s where dedicated teachers demonstrate real value and true values,  when and where value is needed most.

The Real “War on Christmas”

This appeared in the Opinion section of the Cortland Standard on December 19th, 2018.

As the season of giving arrives and resolutions time approaches, I think we should reflect on the nation’s potential better-self and plan to reach for it. We only blind ourselves with a limiting “presently great America” myth and deny the need for any change at our own peril. Can we possibly be better? Of course we can. We can always be better. An example of where we risk failure is in allowing the “war on Christmas” myth to live rent free in our minds without questioning it. In this modern age, no snowflakes should melt over this make believe war any more than virgins should be sacrificed to the volcano gods. We should be smarter than that.

I was never made to believe that the most important thing about Christmas was my right to deck halls, be jolly or say “Merry Christmas”.  I just do those things. I was especially  never made to believe others had to do what I do or say what I say. If demonstrations  of  spirit or belief are valued, I was made to believe that works of grace and good will are available all around us to either do ourselves or see others doing. Do them when you can if you want. Take comfort in knowing others do them when you see it happening.

But if you buy into some made up “war”, you’ve already lost a battle.  If you look the other way when you see a piece of the real war on Christmas being waged against refugees at our border (while raging over decorations, salutations or songs), you risk losing that war.

Teaching to Combat Systemic Injustice

A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic

The concept  behind the proposition is that when a name and a face can be attached to an injustice, oppression, disease, death… the argument against those negative forces becomes more powerful, personal and visceral. A story can be told about the individual. You can find ways to connect to the person and can relate to their suffering. It could be you or someone you love after all. But as teachers, how do we get our students to understand and identify greater injustices, not just the individual ones-whether they be ones weighing on they themselves or those close to them? How do we prepare today’s children and soon-to-be citizens to grapple with today’s notions that are likely be tomorrow’s problems?

When casualties reach into the millions, real understanding tends to disappear. Maybe numbers like that cognitively become labeled as some ephemeral generic mass instead of being understood as revelatory of a significantly greater issue. For example, one child suffering from exposure to lead in their environment can have tragic consequences, and that tragedy hits us in our heart when we see the face or know the name. But it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands or more!

Lead causes irreversible damage to a developing brain, so it is especially harmful to children 5 or younger. Symptoms include developmental delays, dyslexia and behavioral problems. Thus lead exposure adds one more serious adversity to the multiple challenges associated with urban poverty, including nutritional deficiencies, reduced access to quality medical care, community violence and poor-performing public schools. (Washington Post, March 7, 2018)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that our leaders here in the land of the free and home of the brave could perpetrate or allow such things on that scale. I mean, so many people being injured, impaired intentionally or through negligence or apathy-advanced societies wouldn’t allow such things, right? Is that the sort of American Exceptionalism™ they want to lay claim to? You do have to wonder why, in what is more or less a two-party duopoly, neither the righteously proud pro-life party nor a supposed party-of-the-working class would address this sort of glaring, life-destroying oppression.

While so many here at home suffer, they instead cooperate in spending tens of billions of American dollars overseas- funding siege war campaigns, and supporting rebel groups seeking to overthrow leaders of sovereign nations (with no formal declaration of war, and despite both the campaign declarations of pre-President Trump and the unpopularity of endless war amongst the population).

Education should aim for better than test proficiency

A sound, basic public education needs to prepare students to grapple with deeper questions once the world becomes theirs. In addition, as part of an increased focus on civics and civic engagement, educators have a responsibility to help students be fully informed about the mechanisms of the government and condition of the world they will inherit in order for them to make the smartest decisions about how to protect their best interests. But back to the essential question:

Today’s leaders wouldn’t act out of such self interested inhumanity as to shirk their obligations to future generations, would they?

Well, do you remember Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner performance-the one that had all the right-wing nancy-boys and Fox News snowflakes rethinking their brave stance on the first amendment (brave at least when it comes to the rights of speed-talking morons like Ben Shapiro to go to college campuses to show off how offensive and smug he’s willing to be). So many people wrongly interpreted Wolf’s comments to be about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her appearance, when in fact they were aimed at her aversion to the truth. I couldn’t honestly believe there was that much ignorance or hearing impairment in pundit-land, but then I heard a comment on an alternative news source that basically pointed out how no one is even mentioning the last words Wolf spoke as she stepped away from the mic:

Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

So hell yeah, the powerful could, would and do allow atrocities on a massive scale.

Not only do they allow it, they are sometimes supportive and/or complicit and our leaders on both sides of the aisle are exhibit A in that particular shit show. They understand how to perpetuate and brush systemic injustice aside when it  benefits them and their wealthy and powerful allies. Of course individual cases are highlighted for slogans, rallies and all-around exploitation of a political agenda, but mass inequity, injustice and inhumanity are topics to be avoided.

Mainstream media news outlets are no better, allowing for the powerful suctioning away of greater truths to create a vacuum that is then filled with the latest in-the-moment palace intrigue, drama and distraction. The show put on rarely allows for reflection, because just when you lift your head above the waves to snatch a breath, the next wave of bullshit hits.

Our students need to be prepared in a way that only shows bias towards verified truths, not partisan ones.

Being “political” doesn’t have to be the same as being partisan if your continual mission is seeking the truth on any side of an issue and finding a way to engage the issues and others on those issues, putting your thoughts and findings into words. So listening, hearing, analyzing and discussing events and issues all need to be a part of the civic engagement of students. But having them think well means teachers standing in front of them need to also think well. And getting there requires practice.

Think Justice Kavanaugh was simply a hapless and pleasant virgin pray-boy who went to Yale, maybe had a couple beers once in a while, went to church on Sundays and then was suddenly attacked out of the blue by schemers, connivers and rabble-rousers on the left?

Think Chuck Grassley’s sense of justice and decorum was so offended that he just became angered at the behavior coming from the Democrats? Maybe he is just a recent player in politics and is unfamiliar with the game?

Think Lindsey Graham just forgot about defending the sanctity of higher office which he so proudly spoke up for and stood by when hunting down Bill Clinton for an adulterous (but consensual) relationship?

Think that Mitch McConnell repeatedly reaches back to the 1800’s to defend his open obstructionism of Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court because he is a purist when it comes to history and tradition in regards to nominations?

Then you have definitely been infected by the right.

Alternatively, do you think that any of the crusty, dusty old establishment leaders on the left really feel bad about tilting the Supreme Court to the right, allowing for a defensive fortification of well-moneyed and corporate influence over policy?

Then you have been infected by the fake left. Probably a more dangerous condition because you’ve been tricked into believing you are “left” when you’re actually just left-ish of where crazy-right is. You might not even be on the side of the activated true-left. Those willing to spend their time speaking truth to power, or even a little time in jail for doing so.

You know, those advocates of “mob rule”

Now the Republicans are running around afraid, talking about the threat of “mob rule”. These rich white men whose pockets get well-lined by other rich white men are shameless hypocrites, not patriots. They have no honor because their political positions  and loyalty are taken out of convenience and to match the agenda of the day. I won’t even comment on morality because elevating their understanding of morals would require a trip to meet them in Bizarro World where they live by some strange code of moral convenience and equivalence.

For example, referring to concerned citizens exercising their first amendment rights as a “mob” intentionally loses the human and familiar face. This makes you forget that Christine Ford could very well have been or be your own daughter, mother, wife, sister… Somebody you care about brushed aside does not inspire you to spontaneously join a “mob”, but instead it lights a fire under you in regards to a specific issue and for a cause near and dear to you. The freedoms of this nation and it’s citizens have been hard won by the masses inspired in this manner, not through the masses obediently complying with the wishes of the fewest and the wealthiest. The arrogance of Chuck Grassley, the staged bluster of Lindsey Graham, and the desperation of Mitch McConnell begs for this kind of response to these elite, privileged old men.

The ineptitude of the leaders on that fake left have only made that mob’s presence and it’s voice that much more necessary. Once upon a time they were called patriots, and their presence reveals the tyranny and cowardice of leaders.

Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout in Ithaca Saturday

From Emily Adams

View this email in your browser (especially useful if you can’t see the images, or if you want to access back issues…)


Cynthia Nixon returns to Ithaca…

… with Zephyr Teachout and special guest Akeem Browder!

Please join us at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 1st, at the Space @ GreenStar. Cynthia will make a special announcement regarding her environmental platform. She will be joined by Zephyr Teachout, candidate for NY AG, and Akeem Browder, the brother of Kaliff Browder, who recently recorded a powerful endorsement video with Cynthia. Several Ithaca leaders will also say a few words, including legislator Shawna Black and activist Sandra Steingraber.

As field organizer for Ithaca, I hope than an insane number of people turn out to see this event first hand. (We will also be livestreaming on NYPAN’s facebook page.) If necessary, we’ll move the whole thing out into the parking lot. (If someone can attend the event with a rusty Ithaca pickup truck with some bales of hay in the back, that would be awesome.  We’ll save you a parking space near the door… and we can be ready to put Cynthia in the back of the truck with a microphone if need be…)

I need to recruit a whole team of people to help Cynthia (and Jumaane and Zephyr) defeat the incumbents and “business as usual” in Albany. The word from the Nixon campaign is that upstate will be the key to victory. Cuomo can be beaten. Zephyr led the way, 4 years ago, with a 33% showing, but she couldn’t break into the NYC media market. In contrast, Cynthia has plenty of media coverage downstate, but upstaters have been a bit reluctant to get out and champion her. If and when they do, we win!

I would like to personally reach out to everyone who is on the fence and say: OK. She is a NYC celebrity. I get it. But she is fearless and she is progressive to the core. Zephyr supports her. She is smart, and she is working very hard to gain in depth knowledge about the issues that are important upstate (in addition to the issues that are important to everyone, like fully-funded schools, medicare for all, free college tuition, etc.) And on Saturday, she will demonstrate some of that intelligence and passion, when she is joined by Sandra Steingraber at the podium.

Please join us, bring your friends and family.

And bring your smart phone, if you have one. Before you come, download the app “outvote”, and connect to the online app “reach” (go to chrome or other browser and enter: app.reach.vote.) You can practice using them and get questions answered, before or after the program. These tools are going to make the difference for our campaigns.

“Reach” requires that someone give you an access code or pre-approve your cell phone number. Reply to this newsletter with your name and cell phone number, and I can activate you right away! Otherwise, you can get a code on Saturday. You will be amazed and inspired, trust me.

Reply to this newsletter if you can volunteer on Saturday, or if you already know that you are ready to sign up for some volunteer shifts between Saturday and election day. On Saturday, we need volunteers to use “reach” to identify voters at the Farmer’s Market — meet at 9 a.m. at the Piggery and we will train, and then join Cynthia at or near the market from 9:30 to 10:30.

Thanks from me, and thanks in advance from our younger generations, who need strong, honest advocates!

Emily Adams  (NYPAN secretary, TCP chair, field organizer for Cynthia and Zephyr)

emily@nypan.orgemilyadams@cynthiafornewyork.com, 607-708-0342

Songs help make kids smart

The power of story

Before I get to the meat, you need to know my three daughters are a little twisted. At fourteen my oldest, who is now nineteen and ready to start her second year of college, said to me:

“Dad, if I tell you a joke that’s pretty bad will you promise not to get mad?”

After I thought something like Pshh, If she only knew… I said “Sure, Honey, lay it on me.”

It went like this:

“How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?”

Holy cow, I thought, and my eyes must have widened a little because she laughed.

“I don’t know, how many?” I said.

Now, see, I am going to make you wait for the punch line. If I’ve offended you already, that’s fine, you can check out. But if you want some ideas on how to use songs to create great thinkers then hang in there and the punch line will just be a bonus. Not because you are secretly twisted or because me and my kids are openly so, but because it is an additional illustration of how our brain works and why, and what you can do to take advantage of that.

The power of song

Like jokes, songs capture our brain-but they put it to work in a deeper and more complex way. Where a joke is a powerful and visceral way to microwave your thinker like a burrito, one that you can’t help but love and grab out of the freezer when the mood for a quick, sinful snack strikes, a good song is a slow cooker that creates a hearty stew. A classic and satisfying thought-meal.

Let’s start with bad, sad country music.

In terms of country music, I think I’ve only ever owned a Johnny Cash album. I am not a huge fan of the genre, especially the new stuff that tries to pretend it’s rock and roll. But there is something about a country song that tells a story. Especially those sappy old ones about some guy’s cheatin’ wife, some kid’s dead mamma… I think it was Red Sovine that had one where a guy drives his truck to a flower shop to send his mother flowers for her birthday (because he isn’t going to go and actually see her on his trip to party it up in Florida). He meets a kid buying flowers for his mamma’s birthday, cuz he hasn’t seen her in a year. Well, you know where the boy is taking those flowers, don’t you?

If you don’t, give it a listen. It’s called Roses for Mamma. It “gets me” every time.

And you know why? Because it told a story that held you soft and gentle, just wouldn’t let you go, and delivered in the end-and I loved that! But I’m the type that could hear a few of Harry Chapin’s songs (after having already heard them a thousand times) and still tear up and get a lump in my throat. I play a few on the guitar and sometimes singing them becomes tough because I fall victim to the story. I think about it, I embrace the characters and their situations, I celebrate their joy with them, and feel their pain… In the minutes it takes for the song to play you might live their lives with them. Chapin’s Dreams Go By is a great example. A song that follows a man from the courtship of his wife in their youth to the visits from their grandchildren, with wistful “what-if’s” at each stage. But it’s a lifetime of powerful love with no regrets, delivered in a few minutes with a rather jaunty tune and a beat. It’s a happy song, really, but I well up with sentimentality because the world suffers from a lack of love like this.

How the pedagogy works

One of a teacher’s most powerful tools is story, especially one told well. Fewer students are coming to school having been spoken to in a brain-building, productive way these days, let alone read to or told great stories by an adult role model that loves great stories. Now, even when the book fair comes to school, it’s all flashy covers, books about magic tricks, dinosaurs and Captain Underpants… Yeah, I get the whole “Well you gotta’ get ’em hooked somehow, then you can build on that.” But you know what? By the time they come to school too much time has been wasted already.

Too many burritos and not near enough stew, you feel me?

As a parent or a teacher, if you can feed their young brains great stories at an early age, they will start to become more independent with feeding their own brains. They begin to search out stories, to dig into the story, pull out it’s bits and develop a palette for the flavors: what it is that makes the story funny, sad, surprising, scary… What makes this character the hero, the villain… and later on-what makes this character complicated, and complicated how. These are cognitive skills that, as they develop, allow the listener to become the creator and teller.

It also helps create the type of mentality that leads a father to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb with this slight alteration:

the teacher made her lock it up

lock it up, lock it up

the teacher made her lock it up

and for lunch they had lamb stew

Yeah, this was for  Chloe, the daughter with the hooker joke. It was first  grade, if I remember correctly, but I had sung it to her that way all through her childhood. She came home and reported how her teacher looked at her stunned, and how a few classmates had looked a little puzzled. Of course the teacher had been a colleague for years and knew how it was in my home so there was no counseling recommendation or anything. She told me about it and we had a good laugh. I still think the way I lay out the story is better, and more memorable, but hey-to each his own.

The pedagogy is anchored to the power of the story and the enjoyment found in listening and telling and talking together as meaning is searched for and responses are shared, respected and honored.  And if it is wrapped in music it makes the experience deeper, even more memorable, and therefore more readily available for complex levels of thought.

I can even tell you the moment when my songs-can-be-great-stories world was first rocked. It had to be a country song, of course (it’s a real love/hate relationship). Still not a fan of the music, but this song did it so good I can even explain the stages my brain went through. A definite savory stew moment where my mind bit, tasted, and then went whoa! I was barely a teen, but I never listened to songs the same way again.

How it happened to me

I was probably 13 years old. My stepfather was a huge country fan, so it was playing all the time. George Jones, singing that very well-known He Stopped Loving Her Today came on. Now I had heard it a million times, and the whole story of the George and Tammy (Wynette) drama existed in my periphery, so I knew the song… But maybe this was the first time I had really listened because of…well, you know.

Girls. Once you get interested in them and you think your heart has been broken, you’re more receptive to all that $#!+ . This is how it went on that fateful day-lines of the song, followed by my thoughts.

He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones)

He said “I’ll love you till I die” (Hmmm…kinda sappy and sweet, but hey, it’s a country song.)

She told him “You’ll forget in time” (Ouch, buddy! The ol’ “it’s not you, it’s me,”…that’s gotta hurt.)

As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind (Yeah, okay, you miss her…I get it)

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again (now it’s starting to feel a little loser-ish…c’mon guy)

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you” (Uhhhh…now it’s a little weird, dude. You gotta move on.)

I went to see him just today, oh but I didn’t see no tears  (Yes- Finally he’s over it! I wonder what happened.)

All dressed up to go away, first time I’d seen him smile in years (A vacation-great idea! Go somewhere tropical, pick up a cute girl on the beach…You da man!)

He stopped loving her today (‘Bout freakin time!)

They placed a wreath upon his door (Huh?…I’d prank my buddy while he’s away too, but that’s weird- I don’t get the wreath joke.)

And soon they’ll carry him away (“Carry him awaaaaait a minute…)

He stopped loving her today (OHMIGOD…He said I’ll love you “til I die”! He loved her, she left him and he still loved her, and he’s all dressed up in the coffin with that embalmed peaceful grin and there’s a wreath on his door and the pall bearers will carry him away, and, and… He loved her til he died!)

The first time I really listened, I got what my girls call “the feels”. It happens anytime I hear a great song or read/hear a great story.

And now here’s how I’ve use it

When Chloe, my first-born (dead hooker joke girl), was itty biddy: singing songs, dancing, telling stories, doing the voices and making stuff up about the stories, talking about characters…all that was common. On top of that, Chloe had a touch of the performer in her. So one of my favorite things to do besides teach her naughty lyrics to kids songs was to teach her the real lyrics to great story songs.  It started with Cher’s Gypsies Tramps and Thieves and Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue. For Cher’s Gypsies, Chloe once asked

“Dad, why did the men ‘lay their money down’?”

My response was “I guess her mom musta been a real good dancer.”

It’s the story a young girl whose life story was molded through being an outcast of society, some unsafe sex with a drifter and the resulting daughter of her own, while at the same time being empowered by her personal and cultural identity. Chloe was very cute doing a Cher voice as a little girl. Way cuter than me doing it that’s for sure. I didn’t explain the sex with a drifter part-just the other stuff.

A Boy Named Sue is just a fun song. There’s a curse word at the end that I taught her, but I also taught it to her with the censorship “booop” near the end after the father-son brawl. With my children I teach them that part of demonstrating maturity in your learning is being judicious sometimes about how when and where to use what you’ve learned . Sue is a  song about a man looking back on the trials and tribulations in his life caused by a father and a name. Chloe was singing it half-sedated as she was wheeled away for heart surgery when she was ten years old.

The ability of a good story-song to draw you in, to keep you listening and help you learn is why I use songs whenever I can with my own children. We are constantly singing together. And because I’m no dummy- I choose songs a little more carefully for use in school. I can’t go warping other peoples’ children.

Other people’s children

First, let’s finish up with one of my own:

Q: How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Must be more than five, because my basement’s still dark.

Sad songs about a dead guy who never got over his wife leaving, naughty gypsy girls and a cowboy beating up his estranged father in a saloon might not be as bad as dead hooker jokes, but they’re still not classroom ready. There are some much better choices that are great for incorporating into your instruction for essential aspects of literacy. One fine example is Right Field.

Written by Willy Welch, this song was brought to my attention first by Peter, Paul and Mary. After learning that Willy wrote it, and then reaching out to him about plans to teach my class the song and the story, he graciously sent me the sheet music with guitar chords that go with it. As far as I know Willy still performs and if I was near enough I’d get him to my school and my classroom. I am a poor substitute for the pros, but that class of clowns way back when did a pretty good job with it, and I’d bet this year’s class will do a great job.

I believe that because:

It’s a great story. Beyond the character/setting/sequence of events-type stuff, there are some deep thoughts wrapped up in it. The song is a story told from first person point of view about events in the singer/teller’s past. The first verse sets the stage in a couple of ways. It describes weekends during the summers of youth-a glorious time of life indeed.

Saturday summers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem…

It also hints there at a matter most important to kids: self esteem. And this here is an awesome hook for pulling students into this song through the story it tells. Now I am not going to put down the lyrics in their entirety, but to support the self esteem take, the next verse goes:

Cause the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.

Now if you don’t know why that’s a self-esteem thing, the chorus tells you:

Playing…

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

The singer is recalling being the kid that was always the last pick. The inept, awkward non-athlete picked last every time…so much so that he just goes way out to the spot where the useless ones on the team go-to watch the dandelions grow. But for the sake of story and reader skill-building, turning point and character change are story elements that are ripe for study in this song.

Because as the song progresses, the singer describes being lost in a daydream of making a fantastic catch on the run, but then “coming to” and praying that the ball never really comes out to him. During this mental break, if I were to have this song played out on stage, actors in full costume would enter on both sides: little cupie angels in baseball caps with bats over their shoulders would twinkle-toe across the stage, hotdog vendors would pirouette, and popcorn salesmen would prance-tossing popcorn like magical pixie dust. If I do it with my class this year, that’s how I want to do it.

But now…turning point!

It becomes clear that the singer has lost track of his game. He’s out in the field, he knows some stuff happened but he’s not sure exactly what…but he realizes that everyone is looking his way and shouting at him.

Then suddenly everyone’s looking at me
My mind has been wandering; what could it be?
They point at the sky and I look up above
And a baseball falls into my glove!

(And then character change!)

Here in right field, it’s important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw,
That’s why I’m here in right field, just watching the dandelions grow!

There are other songs that I plan on using this year when they apply to the content we cover, and I’ll be writing more about them, but this is about story and Right Field is a song that kicks off the year in a great way. It’s about kids, how they interact and play, how they feel about themselves and each other, and how easy it is to slip into low self esteem and how easy we can make it to lift everyone’s self esteem- if we remember we’re all playing on the same team.

Use those good songs when you find them. Dig into the stories. Print out the lyrics and sing along. It is a fantastic way to inspire readers.