A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

The Blending Of America

Have you noticed how commonplace it’s becoming to see mixed-race couple in TV ads? It’s so common, that I almost think that a conscious decision has been made in corporate circles to counter the flagrant racism of the current administration in Washington. More likely, I suppose, is that it is a good business decision. After all, it won’t be long before minorities become the majority in the United States. Those coffee and cream faces we increasingly see are our future, a future we should welcome, but a future that the racists among us see too.

For reasons I don’t completely understand, I saw this future as a little kid. I remember the day it occurred to me. I was sitting in Mrs. Goldberg’s 5th grade class. She was, I now understand, a New Deal liberal who bravely undertook to teach us about the struggle of African Americans for equality. I have no idea where it came from, but I suddenly blurted out that I thought that Americans would someday be a light brown people, and our race problem would be solved.

That thought was more than liberal Mrs. Goldberg could allow. While I can’t be sure of her motivation, I now suspect that although she was a committed integrationist, she was not immune to the miscegenation fears much more common then but still powerful. One way or another, flustered though she was by my outlandish comment, she proceeded to explain to the class how silly my comment was and how I said it simply to draw attention to myself.

I suspect that most young people watching the easy mixing of the races on TV don’t think twice about it. If that’s true, we’ve made more progress as a society than our current political nightmare allows us to believe.

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It’s the Paycheck…

So now the teacher uprising has spread to Colorado. Here as everywhere else the issue is salary and education funding. There is a bitter irony in all of this. Both the NEA and AFT have in recent years tried to regain a focus on organizing. The only trouble has been that have been clueless about resonating issues around which to organize. Both nationals unions have appeared to think that teachers wanted their unions to help them professionally, to provide them with instructional guidance and all sorts of professional dev elopement. Both have seriously neglected to consider the deplorable salaries and working conditions of much of the teacher workforce. Is it any wonder then that the uprisings appear to be generated in the ranks of teachers rather than inspired by union leadership?

We cultivate a myth that teachers are drawn to their profession because of their strong feelings for children. While liking to work with young people is an important qualification, the fact of the matter is that people teach to earn their living. As a group, they may be a bit less materialistic than most, but absent a pay check, most of us are not going to work every day no matter how emotionally rewarding work with children can be.

Our unions can thrive in a post Janus world if they can once again offer teachers a vision of a better economic life, a life in which one job is enough – a professional life in which they earn a good living and have a real say in shaping their work-life.

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Knowing to Comprehend

Imagine taking a reading test and confronting the following paragraph. That’s the way too many of our young students feel as they take the high stakes tests we require of them.

“Test cricket is a game that spans over two innings. This means that one team needs to bowl the other team out twice and score more runs than them to win the match. Another key difference between test cricket and other forms of cricket is the length of the innings. In test cricket there is no limit to the innings length. Whereas in one day cricket & Twenty20 cricket there are a certain amount of overs per innings [sic]. The only limits in test cricket is a 5 day length. Before the game begins an official will toss a coin. The captain who guesses the correct side of the coin will then choose if they want to bat or field first. One team will then bat while the other will bowl & field. The aim of the batting team is to score runs while the aim of the fielding team is to bowl ten people out and close the batting teams’ innings. Although there are eleven people in each team only ten people need to be bowled out as you cannot have one person batting alone. Batting is done in pairs.”

You no doubt were able to read every word in the paragraph above from cricketrules.com. Yet, unless you know the game, you can’t comprehend very much of what it says. It requires previous knowledge to make it completely intelligible. So it is with all reading. The reader is expected to have certain basic knowledge in order to be able to comprehend what is being said. While this appears to be self-evident and is confirmed by reams of education research, the fact is that most of our elementary schools focus on basic reading skills and neglect the knowledge base necessary for good comprehension. Every few years we seem to send our elementary teachers for staff development in the latest reading program or technique. Given that the state examinations are in reading and math, more and more of the elementary school day has been devoted to skills instruction. In so doing, we have ironically lessened our students’ capacity to be better readers, depriving them of the basic knowledge needed to be good readers.

A recent article on this subject in The Atlantic should be read by every person responsible for the education of young children. We need to begin the task of rebuilding a content based curriculum if we are ever to improve the reading ability of our children.

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Opt-Out Alive and Well in New York

It looks like it will be another good year for the rebellion against the testocracy in New York. The first part of the ELA Exam administered this week was skipped by over 50 percent of Long Island students. Long Island has been the epicenter of the Opt-Out Movement in our state. It’s encouraging to see the continuing commitment of parents to demand that their children not be subjected to test driven education. We can expect to see even higher the opt-out rates on the soon to be given math exams.

With Governor Cuomo up for re-election and challenged in his own party by Cynthia Nixon, NYSUT, our state teacher union, appears to be exerting maximum pressure on the Governor to change the law linking state test results to teacher evaluation. While Cuomo has been lining up union support throughout the state, he hasn’t yet gotten NYSUT’s which he is known to crave. Remember, it was Cuomo who in a different political environment gave us test based teacher evaluations in the first place. Challenged now from his left and with an eye on the 2020 presidential race, the endorsement of the state’s largest union has a luster to Cuomo that it didn’t have before, suggesting that the time is right for a deal ending test based teacher accountability once and for all. While most union members will not be thrilled with an endorsement of Cuomo, most will recognize their self-interest in making the deal.

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Homework Therapy?

Doesn’t it strike us that there is something wrong with our schools when we note that a tutoring industry worth $100 billion has sprung up to meet the needs of an overwhelmed generation of students who find it impossible to cope with the academic demands made of them without significant help? So overwhelmed are many of them that the New York Times reports the development of a new niche in the tutoring industry – homework therapy. That’s right – home work therapy sessions costing $200 to $600 for a 50 to 75 minute session.

It has seemed to me that we have confused piling work on to students as raising academic standards. We’ve created a climate in which students can never do enough. Take more courses! Only taking two AP classes? What’s wrong with you? School has become the sum total of too many adolescents’ existence. Rare are the students who find significant hours during week days to just relax, hang out with friends or play non-competitive sports for fun. Those that do carve out some space for themselves tend to be seen as lacking seriousness. You’ve got to build your resume. You’ve got to get into that top college, to get a top job and earn a top salary.

When will we realize that the existence of a burgeoning tutoring industry strongly suggests that we have unrealistic expectations of student performance? When will we see that the work we pile on young people has many of them expressing psychological symptoms that have brought into being coping strategies like homework therapy? When will we remind ourselves that children need unstructured time to play, to explore the things that bring them joy? When we do, we will put an end to the senseless hours of homework we expect of children who have already put in six or seven hours of academics in school.

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I’m Reminded

Some sixty years ago, my high school age friends and I went to a movie out of our immediate neighborhood in Brooklyn. As was our custom, we looked for a place to have something to eat after the show. Walking up Flatbush Avenue, the aromas of kosher deli wafted our way from a restaurant up the street, enticing us to the pleasures of corned beef and crinkle-cut French fries. We walked in, sat a a vacant table and began looking at the menu, when to the horror of my teenage, socially maladroit self who come to wait on us but Mr. G., one of my teachers. Objectively, I suppose, there was no reason for either of us to be embarrassed. Yet, both of us demonstrably were. I think I intuitively felt there was something wrong with a teacher working nights in a restaurant. There was certainly something wrong with him having to wait on me. It was left to Mr. G., the adult, to break the ice and try to make us both feel as comfortable as we could in our situation.

I now know that these were the times when the teacher labor movement was coming to life. There would soon be a teacher strike in New York, motivated by a generation of teachers who bravely demanded to be treated with respect, teachers who would no longer accept wages they couldn’t support their families on. They no longer wanted to work two and three jobs to eke out an existence. They were no longer accepting of having little or no say in how they did their work. Self-respect demanded that they break the law to obtain the justice they sought.

Ten years later, I would join their profession and their struggle. The organizing cry of my local union, a union that I would one day lead, was a starting teacher salary of $10,000. Shortly after I arrived, we struck to achieve our goal. Over the years, through our unions, we have been able to significantly improve the salaries and benefits of teachers. We were able to establish teaching as a solidly middle class job.

I’ve been thinking about those early days as I watch teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, areas of the country where the union movement never took hold as it did in other parts of the country, awaken to the intolerable conditions under which they work and organize themselves to demand better treatment. They remind me of past battles and of the ongoing struggle of teachers for dignity and status in a country that ironically sees education as the driver of economic progress. Perhaps from their ranks, a new generation of union leadership will emerge, a leadership recommitted to direct action on behalf of its membership, a leadership able to unite the entire profession in one big union committed to economic justice for all Americans.

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New York Meeting the Challenge

I’m quick to criticize our union movement. I’m quick too to congratulate when something is right and going well. Three years ago when the Friedrichs Case threatened our unions’ right to the collection of agency fees, I suggested to the leadership of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), my state organization, that we not wait for what would surely be an adverse Supreme Court decision and instead immediately begin a yearly process of re-signing up our members. To do that before the court’s decision would have most, if not all of our members in place while identifying those who might seek to be freeloaders. The room-full of local leaders and the NYSUT officer running the meeting responded to my suggestion as though I had put forth a proposal so absurd as to preclude any serious discussion. Silence was the initial response, and then a polite, “I’ll take that suggestion back to Albany.”

Since then, I’m happy to say, NYSUT has clearly run with my idea. Much of their PR work has been focused in recent times on educating members to the political realities behind the threat to agency fee, now from the Janus Case, and a multi-pronged campaign promoting the yearly signing of union membership applications. From what I’m able to gather, the campaign is going well, with local leaders beginning to see the possibilities of not only surviving what is sure to be an adverse decision in Janus but emerging from confronting the threat with much stronger local organizations. To be sure, we will lose some members, but if we take the next step and isolate the freeloaders so that there is a social cost to what they see as their financial gain, in the end we will be rewarded for the struggle to preserve our unions. A new generation of union leaders will have learned of the benefits of a focus on organizing as opposed to running service oriented locals.

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March to the Polls

The TV talking heads appear convinced that the student-led march on Saturday and the events leading up to it signal a change in the direction in the gun control debate. Having injured my foot two days before the event, I was unable to attend any of the satellite demonstrations but did get to watch a good deal of it on the tube. Despite the extraordinary organization and the sincere eloquence of still innocent youth, I remain skeptical that any significant change is in the offering. The counter message to the demonstration was the absence of Congress from Washington, our representatives having gone home and our President away golfing as usual.

It is going to take a Democrat rout in the mid-term elections for us to have any real hope of coming to terms with the crazy gun policy of the United States. A very disturbing article in this morning’s New York Times suggests that such a rout may be more difficult than is currently imagined owing to extreme Republican gerrymandering. The challenge to progressives is to run an unsurpassed voter registration drives now, especially among the young, and a parallel voter turn-out operations for the fall.

If you are a high school teacher and your school does not have a voter registration drive as a senior activity, start one now. Any eighteen year old who leaves school unregistered to vote represents a significant failure of his school’s program. While we’re at it, let’s not forget that a handful of staff in most of our schools is not registered and more than a handful don’t bother to vote regularly. We need to be organizing school based campaigns to fix this problem too. The next great march has to be to the polls.

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Don’t Waste Energy and Resources

Progressives need to focus on winning and not on ideological purity. Campaigns like Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to Andrew Cuomo may activate the ideological purity receptors of some on the left, but in the end they lead to a waste of resources and, more importantly, bad feelings and low voter participation rates.

To be clear, I deeply dislike Andrew Cuomo, but as the incumbent governor with a huge campaign fund, he is more than likely to win. For all his faults, is he better than any republican being considered to run against him? Nixon is but one day into her campaign, and she is already asking whether Cuomo is a real Democrat. That’s the kind of question that got us President Trump. It’s the kind of infantile politics that has many Democrat congressional candidates running against Nancy Pelosi, a seasoned, successful, progressive legislator whose power and success curiously stirs opposition to her from members of her own party.

Our country’s institutions are challenged each day by a president and republic controlled congress that is hell-bent on erasing the New Deal from our history. At such a time we need to rally around Democrats of every stripe if we are to save this country as a fit place for working people to live and thrive. We can’t afford to waste energy and resources fighting among ourselves

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Misunderstanding Pensions

There is much I could say about the firing of Andrew McCabe, but I’ll confine myself to an issue his firing raises of import far beyond his individual case. The issue is the almost complete misunderstanding of what a pension is that permeates our media if not our society. As fewer and fewer people have defined benefit pensions, the very meaning of the terms seems to be evaporating.

One would think from the way pensions, particularly public employee pensions, are talked about that they are a reward for meritorious service upon retirement. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Pensions are deferred wages. A sum of money is paid by an employer periodically into a fund on behalf of an employee to provide income to that employee upon his retirement. The employee foregoes that money now to ensure a continuing income when he stops working.

When correctly understood, the taking of the pension of someone like McCabe who worked for over twenty years for an alleged contemporaneous infraction of FBI rules is particularly outrageous. He worked for the dollars that were put in the pension fund for him. We don’t ask him to return all of his pay checks for the twenty years of his employment. Why do we think his pension should be treated differently?

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The Young Awaken

As I write this morning, students across the country are leaving their classes to participate in seventeen minutes of silence in remembrance of the seventeen students killed in Parkland, Florida. In Washington, DC, students from the metro area converged on the Whitehouse, turning their backs to it in protest of the federal government’s failure to enact reasonable gun safety measures.

For a man who was their age in the 60’s, the awakening of student activism on a national scale is beyond heartening. I’ve watched far too many classes of students subordinate their feelings and concerns for matters beyond themselves to the race to get into the best college, to get the best job, to earn the most money. While it is indeed sad that it may have taken a massacre of their peers to wake them from their careerist torpor, the fact is they are awake. They’re marching, registering to vote and, even more importantly, experiencing the exhilaration that come with commitment to something bigger than one’s self. The adrenaline that comes with the experience of working with others for social change is a wonderful addiction that leads to a lifetime of good citizenship.

Bravo, young people! You put your parents who have been sitting on the sidelines to shame. March on!

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Now It’s Oklahoma

Recent militancy by the school employees of West Virginia is inspiring public workers in other non-collective bargaining states to take concerted action. The next likely state-wide strike is in Oklahoma, where the Oklahoma Education Association has carefully developed a campaign entitled Together We’re Stronger. There are four central planks to their campaign – a $10,000 raise over three years to all teachers with a $5,000 increase to support personnel, the restoration of education funding cut in recent years, a five percent increase in the pensions of retirees and a $7500 increase for all other state workers. Clear, concise and anchored in economic terms all state works with frozen wages can understand. Coupled with the threat of a statewide walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association has positioned themselves to be taken seriously by the governor and legislature.

In West Virginia and Oklahoma, public sector works are rediscovering an old truth. They are learning that worker solidarity around carefully crafted demands can force reluctant governments to bargaining even where there are no collective bargaining laws. Who would have ever expected West Virginia and Oklahoma to lead this rediscovery?

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West Virginia Settlement

The West Virginia strike by education workers is over. It appears that labor has won a clear victory, a victory that is causing other non-collective bargaining states to consider strike action. At a time when public sector unions are nervously and desperately attempting to shore-up their solidarity to withstand the almost certain defeat in the impending Janus Case decision, the resolve of the West Virginia NEA and AFT members to put away their ancient grudges and take on the state controlled completely by conservative Republicans offers hope and inspiration to a movement that has been languishing for too long. Undoubtedly spurred on by their example, the Oklahoma Education Association, An NEA affiliate whose teachers are the lowest paid in the nation, is talking about a strike at the end of the month if their economic demands are not met.

One would expect the leadership of both the NEA and AFT to be wildly celebrating the almost inconceivable West Virginia victory. Yet, a look at the web pages of both organizations reveals a stunning silence on the subject. Ironically, both have featured pieces on the Janus Case as they both fail miserably to see in the solidarity of the West Virginia teachers, aides, cafeteria works and bus drivers the real solution to the right’s attack on our unions – vibrant unions that fight like hell for the economic welfare of their members.

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The Unsafe School Myth

Readers will have notices how the discussion of a response to the school shooting in Florida has gradually changed from a focus on guns to hardening schools and providing gun power in some form to school buildings. Students, teachers and parents are being encouraged to believe that going into a school building poses a significant risk, one that demands quasi-military defenses that will have long range implications for school environment and culture. I have argued that school remains the safest place for children to be, the risk of serious injury at home still being far greater than falling victim to a crazed individual with an assault rifle. While I know it’s risky to challenge thoughtlessness with facts, certainly educators have an obligation to try to do so.

Eric Levits, writing in New York Magazine, offers what to me is the best writing on the subject of school safety that I have read. His work should receive the broadest possible circulation, as he offers chapter and verse in support of the fact that contrary the avalanche of stupid talk generated by the Florida tragedy, school remains a very safe place to be. The act of traveling to school puts one at far greater risk of injury and death than succumbing to mass murder. Unless reason can prevail, we appear to be on the verge of vast, unnecessary expenditures, expenditures that will certainly displace badly needed educational resources.

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Our Strike Averse Unions

Teachers and other school personnel remain on strike in West Virginia. A deal negotiated with the governor but dependent on action by the legislature was rejected by the rank and file. Every school district in the state is closed. The editorial page of the New York Times this morning looks at this stunning example of union militancy and says, “…we can hope, these teachers can provide workers throughout the country with a powerful lesson.”

Yet, do we see any of our unions trying to teach this vital lesson? Do we see our national teacher unions trying to inspire their affiliates to see in the militant struggle of the West Virginia school workers the untapped power to demand and achieve reasonable salaries sand working conditions? No we don’t! The New York Times is more militant than our unions!

While the AFT’s Randi Weingarten put out an email Sunday night soliciting donations to a solidarity fund created for AFT-West Virginia, both the NEA and The AFT appear desperate to keep the strike localized, afraid that the militancy it represents will spread to other states where to work in the public schools is to essentially take a vow of poverty.

At a time when the two national teacher unions and their state affiliates are expecting huge membership losses from a ruling in the Janus Case that will outlaw agency fees, when both organizations have been straining to show members the value of union membership, it defies the very concept of a union to essentially ignore an example of the power that can flow from the ranks of union solidarity.

If we get the lesson to be learned from the West Virginia strike, it is essential that we support it. I’ll be contributing today to the AFT solidarity fund. I hope my readers will too. Here are the particulars. Please make checks out to: AFT-WV Solidarity Fund. Mail to: AFTWV, 1615 Washington Street E . Suite 300, Charleston WV 25311

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The Little Noticed Strike

At a time when collective bargaining is under attack by powerful corporate interests, when those interests have brought a case to the United States Supreme Court that will probably end agency fee for public sector unions, wouldn’t one expect our national teacher unions to be making a big deal out of the statewide teacher strike in West Virginia? Yet, looking at the AFT website just minutes ago I was shocked to find nothing about it at all. NEA was better, with one dated article with appropriate quotations from NEA officers.

The efforts of the West Virginia teachers are a powerful example to public employees in non-collective bargaining states of the power they have when they stand in solidarity and demand to be treated fairly. They also remind collective bargaining unions of the strike weapon that has largely been surrendered in recent times. If national unions are not to publicize such efforts, if they make no effort to hold them up as examples of unions at their best, if they make no visible move to organize their memberships to come to the aide of the West Virginia teachers, what conclusion are we to draw as to the reasons for their continued existence? Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Yet, here is an opportunity to organize that goes almost unnoticed.

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Getting Serious About Depression

I’ve written before about how I came to the understanding that clinical depression is a significant, under-diagnosed factor in the lives of many adolescents. It’s a factor in at least some of the gun violence that has plagued our public schools. I was heartened to hear on an NPR broadcast this morning that the American College of Pediatrics has published practice guidelines that that call for the yearly screening of adolescents from age twelve on for clinical depression.

Beyond question, pediatricians ought to be on guard for the signs of depression in their patients. But, if we are serious about screening the nation’s adolescents, school is the place to do so if we are to capture the broadest possible population. Such screenings could easily become part of a child’s periodic visit with her guidance counselor. The screening consists of a written questionnaire that is completed quickly and easily compiled. Where the screening instrument indicates clinical depression, most public schools have psychologists on staff that can make contact with the child and her parents to arrange for outside treatment.

Hopefully this call for universal screening of adolescents for depression by the pediatricians will have another effect. Perhaps it will call into more careful questioning the inappropriate pressures we are putting on young people in the name of school reform and raising academic standards. With a lot of leadership and a bit of luck, we may be able to rediscover what we once knew about child development and refashion our school programs for kids as they are rather than what we wish them to be.

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Arm Who?

When I wrote yesterday, “Let’s try to keep our wits about us and resist loony proposals to arm our teachers and other similar ideas, ideas growing out of the stupidity that the solution to gun violence is more guns,” I didn’t realize that the President was about to have a listening session on gun violence in our schools at which he would propose the arming 20% of the teaching staff. 20% to carry concealed weapons. While I labeled the idea loony, it seems some 40% of Americans think the President’s idea a good one. I woke up this morning thinking about who the 20% in my district might be.

To begin, the overwhelming majority of the teachers I know would not only not volunteer to be a part of some clandestine paramilitary force within their schools, they would demand that their union seek contractual language making it explicitly clear that teachers cannot be assigned such duties, even if they volunteer. They didn’t become teachers to tote a gun in class.

There would be some volunteers. Experience tells me, they would come from those who despite the fact that crime in the United States is at an all-time low, do not believe the statistics, seeing instead a society in which we are always exposed to incipient attack. They are the ones for whom student discipline can never be tight enough. They are the teachers who are driven by the fear that their classes are always on the verge of rebellion should they relax their guard for a second. Should some misbehavior occur in their class, their insecurity causes them to escalate the situation rather than deal
with it more unobtrusively. They are the gun owners among us, owners who are not hunters or target shooters but people who fear strangers, suspecting them of wanting to do them harm. Short-fused, up-tight, they are precisely the sort of people you wouldn’t want to count on in a tense situation, especially with guns in their hands. The risk to the school population posed by arming them is far greater than the still statistically rare event of mass murder.

Arming teachers will always be a loony idea. That the latest loon to propose it is the President of the United States is cause for the deepest concern.

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School is a Safe Place

I suppose it’s to be expected that in the well-intentioned anti-gun rhetoric growing out of the recent school gun violence in Florida there will be some serious exaggeration. Just last evening, Lawrence O’Donnell found himself talking about gun violence having become a working condition of today’s teachers. Now really! Checking my Twitter account after that broadcast, I found AFT President Randi Weingarten thanking O’Donnell for his remarks and referring to our nation’s schools as killing fields. I don’t mean to minimize the Parkland tragedy in the slightest. I do think, however, that serious adults have a responsibility to be more careful with their rhetoric than the traumatized children in that attacked Florida high school. We need to remind parents and students alike that despite the incidence of gun violence in our schools, a child is probably safer in a public school than in any other place, including his home.

By all means, let’s seize the moment to demand action against the scourge of gun violence in our country. In doing so, we need to be careful not to leave our nation’s students with the impression that they are likely to experience an armed attack in their public school. Let’s try to remember that the overwhelming number of kids in our schools do not. Let’s try to keep our wits about us and resist loony proposals to arm our teachers and other similar ideas, ideas growing out of the stupidity that the solution to gun violence is more guns.

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The student voices demanding action be taken to thwart the epidemic of gun violence in our nation’s schools is heartening. Their demands, grown out of the trauma of surviving an attack that killed seventeen of their own, give us a glimmer of hope that our political leaders may finally embrace their allegiance to the United States rather than the National Rifle Association. Perhaps more importantly and long-lasting, they may be the generation of Americans to come to terms with our societal fascination with guns.

I hope teachers throughout the nation are taking time to talk to students about this youth movement, offering words of encouragement and maybe a little know-how. I hope too that local teacher unions understand their self-interest in aligning themselves with students to mount the political pressure that will bring about sensible firearms policy. In my youth, the work of students and faculty contributed powerfully to the end of the senseless Viet Nam War.

We need to understand, however, that the change we seek will not happen in the short run. We can expect at most some cosmetic changes to the existing background law from the current congress and administration. But, if we are prepared to work over the long term to defeat the gun lobby, the outpouring of horror at events in Florida and the lack of an appropriate response from our President and the NRA puppets in the Congress may enable us to make some serious change in the fall. Conditions may just be right for a national movement to punish all our leaders who toe the NRA line in exchange for their money. Given our history, it’s hard to be hopeful, but I am for the first time in awhile.

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