Category Archives: education

An Argument About Guns

I argue on Facebook a lot. I’m that guy. You got an opinion on something? Let’s start arguing, see where it takes us.

I have principles and values that I attempt to defend, but I don’t get angry if someone attacks them. After all, if they can’t stand up to an attack, then maybe they’re not worth defending.

One of my principles is that guns create deadly violence. They are not the only weapons to do so, but they are — in fact and deed — manufactured to create deadly violence. It may not be violence to a human being, but it is violence to a target, whatever that target may be.

The absence of guns, however, does not mean the absence of violence. Violence is a by-product of nature, and nature is everywhere and for all time, therefore, the potential for violence can never reach absolute zero.

I accept this.

What I do not accept is the idea that adding a weapon to any situation will actually reduce the potential for deadly violence. The presence of a weapon threatens violence, regardless of whether the weapon is used. It increases, in every instance, the potential for deadly violence.

This is not an opinion. I understand it as a statement of fact, one hardly worth defending, since it seems so rock steady and impervious.

I do, however, note potential cracks, areas where, while suffering a direct attack, my pillar of an argument may — in fact and deed — require my direct support.

The constructing of an argument is the concentration of diverse forces upon a central point, and just as in the construction of a bridge, where the best way to channel forces is through a series of triangles, the best way to construct an argument is to triangulate a central point. That means one side of the argument must address the forces marshaled in favor of a counterargument.

The central point of my argument is that guns create deadly violence, but the counterargument I addressed defends the thesis that guns do not create the potential for violence.

I have committed the fallacy of a straw-man argument. Not even the biggest gun proponent would defend the position that guns do not create the potential for violence; instead, and more reasonably, they argue that guns are the best answer to actual violence.

And in that, we differ.

There will be another school shooting and dozens of children and teachers will die. We live in a violent world, and school shootings are one manifestation of that violence. I accept that.

But gun proponents do not think I ought to accept that. They believe that they truly cherish every innocent life, and they want to defend that innocent life with everything they’ve got. I respect that.

But I do not think it is possible to defend every innocent life.

We live in nature, and nature is a violent place that we can never escape. It creates in us the potential for violence in the same way that it creates in us the oxygen that keeps our bodies alive. The potential for violence is a condition of our being, the ground state of our existence.

That is why I argue about reducing the potential for violence; because we can never get actual violence to zero. Gun proponents, to their credit, argue about reducing actual violence, and they refuse to accept their failure.

I would like to respect and support both positions, but I cannot accept a reality in which there is never any failure.

I do not believe in utopia. I do not believe in perfection. This is a byproduct of my not believing in God. Because I do not believe in God, I am not required to defend any one position as perfect.

Christians believe in a triangular God because they believe that talking about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit best allows them to concentrate the weight of their wisdom on one central and holy principle: a single, perfect God. They believe that God’s righteous anger, as well as His infinite mercy, reveals the way we ought to live in moments small and large, and that this revelation is experienced through the grace of His Holy Spirit.

I don’t very much disagree with them; but in the end, I only accept their argument as wisdom, and not as fact.

Because I do not accept the existence of a single, perfect God, I do not have to accept any idea of perfection as a possible fact. I do not believe in nor feel I ought not to strive for the creation of perfection.

Instead, I believe in and feel I ought to strive for the best way to improve the potential for love and/or reduce the potential for violence.

That means, in this instance, I strive to reduce, while knowing we can never eliminate, the threat of violence to our school children.

Any positive argument I make from this position is therefore unacceptable to gun proponents, and perhaps it ought to be. With them, I am not willing to accept actual violence befalling my own child, or the children I teach each day, or my own wife, or the children she teaches each day. With them, I want our schools to be free from actual violence, and with them, I don’t deny that guns are perhaps the best way to confront actual violence.

But we can never free every child from the potential for violence, and so that’s where I choose to put my effort — to reduce the potential rather than to stop the actual (which, in all instances, we will never be able to do).

I do not believe that putting guns in our schools will actually reduce the potential for violence.

I can imagine, because we see it happen every day, armed authority figures killing actually innocent men and boys. It will be a single story on the news, perhaps lasting a month at most (depending on the circumstances), and then the authority figure(s) will be suspended, fired, and perhaps even convicted, and the story will go away.

And then, maybe a month or two later, an armed authority figure will kill a single armed shooter, preventing the body count in one attack from rising any higher (though almost definitely not reducing it to zero). The story will be incredible for its real and actual heroism, and the number of proponents for removing the guns from our schools will reduce.

And then another actually innocent man or boy will be killed, and the authority figure will be suspended, fire, or convicted. And then another, and then another, and then perhaps another school shooter will be stopped by an official’s gun.

And that will just become our reality.

The number of school shootings by armed and angry boys will eventually reduce, but never equal zero, and yet still, unencumbered, the number of dead actually innocent kids gunned down by armed authority figures will go on and on, and because the school shooters keep coming, even if in drastically reduced numbers, no positive argument will be heard that suggests removing the armed authority figures from the school will actually make every school shooter stop.

And actually innocent children will continue to die.

That cannot be helped. I don’t care how many guns you throw at the problem.

Gun proponents envision a future where every child accepts the presence of guns in both their personal and their public lives, but in that instance, the child becomes conditioned to a reality where there exists a drastically high potential for violence — violence in self-defense, perhaps, but still, and always, violence.

But I’m trying to envision a future where every child and every adult thinks of schools as sacrosanct. Shooters won’t stay away because they are afraid. They will stay away because of respect.

I teach in a school for students who have been diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders. Many of them have been expelled from other schools because their presence increased the potential for violence. The state does not know what to do with these kids, and so they send them to us.

Our entire school is based on the concept of respect. We respect the students, and in return, we expect them to respect us. They often don’t. But our response never changes. In this one place, they are not required to earn or maintain our respect. We simply give it to them. Every day. All day. Regardless of what they do. And through that experience, the students witness, every day, all day, what it means for one person to respect another, and we hope, through that experience, they learn to respect the place that we’ve built, and maybe, if we’re lucky, the people who continue to build it.

I don’t worry about any of my students coming to my school to shoot us up, and mine are the students virtually every other school is worried about.

I don’t worry about them because I trust they know I respect them.

Most gun proponents I have spoken with make a big deal out of respect, and rightfully so. But one does not earn respect by threatening someone with violence; a threat can only earn their fear.

The worst thing that could happen at my school is for an armed authority figure to show up. The state has sent these kids, over the course of their short lifetimes, to residential facilities that, in the minds of these kids, are little better than jails. They’ve been thrown to the ground and forcibly restrained by adults. Many of them have been handcuffed and taken to an actual jail.

To these kids, authority figures are, for very valid reasons, just triggers to a post-traumatic episode — sources of anxiety, anger, and fear.

We work to socialize our students to authority figures, but we also respect the experiences that they’ve gone through, not seeing in them any reason for blame or judgement, just respecting them for who they are and what they’re experiencing now.

We are able to do this because the discussions we have in our professional-development workshops value therapy above academic achievement. While it is true that we are a school, we believe that teaching them about respect, acceptance, anger, and coping will do them more good than teaching them to do their sums. We strive to provide them with skills for communications, empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and social reasoning, but the primary focus is on the development of their personal qualities.

The students we traditionally receive have been so disobedient that they’ve, in almost all cases, been literally beat down by their families and society. Many of them have never known, since the moment they were born, a moment free from anxiety, fear, and pain.

They do not need to be further conditioned to a reality with a high potential for violence. They do not need to worry more that their disobedience may result in their death. That is already the only existence they’ve ever known.

I beg you, as a man who spends virtually every waking hour thinking about how to help the broken children in our communities, do not put armed authority figures in our schools.

Help me teach these children that, before anything else, and just because they are alive, they deserve our respect.

Because that is the only thing that will ever bring us closer to actually reducing the violence.

(Which, I accept, we can never reduce to zero.)

Teacher Advocates “Students, Go On Strike.”

Let’s not bullshit anyone. I’m the teacher in the headline and I’m advocating that every student in the United States go on strike until Congress takes decisive action on the issue of school shootings.

I am not advocating for one position or another. I do not have the solution.

But it’s not my job to come up with the solution. It’s the job of our Senators and Representatives in Congress. This is exactly what we sent them to Congress to do.

School shootings are a national problem. They are not a local problem or a state problem. They are a national problem, and there is only one place in America with the authority to address a national problem. It’s not Hollywood or New York City or even Fairfax, Virginia. It’s Washington D.C.

We send representatives to Washington D.C. to work together to address and solve the problems that beset us all. We understand that there will be disagreements as to a proper solution, and that the system will be corrupted by the current state of human nature, but we are also willing to accept the results of the American democratic process. We may not like the results, and we may continue to fight to improve them or change them, but we’ll also accept them.

But before we can get results, we need to have an open and honest debate, where all the cards are on the table and people of good will can persuade other people of good will to form a majority in favor of a specific solution or set of solutions and where the minority also accepts the solution (begrudgingly if need be) and neglects to force the majority to form a supermajority.

I say this knowing full well that the Republican National Party holds a majority of seats in Congress and that the platform of that party is antithetical to my values on virtually every issue, including this one, but I also say it knowing that this particular issue is one where every American truly wants their Congressperson to vote their conscience.

If every Congressperson is able to speak honestly and openly about their feelings and thoughts on this one issue, and every American, regardless of their party affiliation or their employer, is willing to accept that Congressperson’s position as, at the very least, open and honest, then I believe their vote on this particular issue would not dampen their ability to run for re-election. It would, regardless of which way they voted, do the opposite.

When people talk about being sick of the politicians, what we mean is that we’re sick of the liars. We don’t want our representatives to vote a certain way because it will help them keep their job. We want them to vote a certain way because they believe in it. It’s not their job to run for office. It’s our job to determine whether we want someone with their beliefs to represent us in Congress.

The politicians need to stop running for re-election and start doing the job we sent them there to do: use their conscience to do what they think is best.

More than any other public institution, schools should be a refuge from danger. They are where virtually every parent in the community sends their children for the majority of the work day. Yes, schools have other priorities, but they are also, and maybe primarily, our daycare.

Not one parent — whether they are an NRA member or a member of — wants to go to work every day worried about receiving a phone call notifying them of the death of their child. As parents, we can deal with phone calls about suspensions and expulsions. We can deal with drug convictions, special education restrictions, sick days, a teacher’s concern about a lack of homework, the fact that our child has been bullying someone, whatever.

What we can’t handle is the phone call that tells us our child is dead.

If we trust schools with anything, we trust them with that.

But now we can’t, and we haven’t been able to for a long time. We now know, and we’ve known for a while, that our schools have become the most vulnerable institutions in our communities — the one public space where deranged individuals can do the most damage.

The politicians in Washington D.C. are afraid of this issue, and for good reason: there is no  answer that will satisfy everyone, and there’s a lot of money at stake when it comes to this particular issue. These politicians don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole, not the ones who are there now.

More than anything, the lack of movement on this issue reveals our representatives’ inability to do the one job we sent them to Washington to do: participate in an open and honest debate and at the end of the day, vote their conscience.

If they are unable to do that, they should all, regardless of party, be replaced. Failure to move the ball on this one issue should cost them their seat, and they ought to stake their future on that.

Every student in every school in every Congressional district in the United States ought to stay home from school until their elected representative pledges to move the ball on this issue before the November election, and the students should continue to stay out of school until the majority and minority leaders agree that, on this one issue, any threat to filibuster or any act of filibustering be staged from the House or Senate floor. If they let the debate be open and honest, then Americans will respect the results.

Failing that, every student ought to refuse to attend school, and every parent in every district in every state in the United States will have to solve the problem of daycare. This will put such a screeching halt to the national economy that Congress will have no choice but to respond.

As a teacher, I hear every day from my students how children have no rights. I try to tell them that as human beings, they always have rights. But as human beings, they’re also vulnerable to having those rights taken away. Which means they have two choices: they can either stand up and fight for their rights, or they can give them away. But no one, no one, can just take their rights away from them.

As a human being on planet earth, you have the right to petition your government for a redress of grievances. The most polite way to do that is to write a letter. The most effective way to do that is to make a lot of noise until the entire head of the government is forced to turn your way and deal with you.

As individuals below the age of 18, you do not have the right to vote. But as human beings, you do have the right to make your voices heard.

As citizens, you also have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — all of which add up to the right to be free from fear.

Every day, your guardians are required by law to send you to an adult-managed place where contemporary events demonstrate your safety cannot be guaranteed, and where your life seems to be increasingly at risk. This should not be acceptable to you.

And you ought to stand up and do something about it.

Right now, to these politicians who refuse do anything about it, your deaths — your lives — don’t matter.

You have to stand up and make them matter. You have to hit these fuckers where it counts: in their wallets.

And by fuckers, I mean every adult who continues to let this happen.

Stop going to school and they’ll have to stop going to work. When they stop going to work, the money dries up. When the money dries up, that’s when adults turn to Washington. Which will mean that those fuckers in D.C. will have to do their jobs while the whole world is watching.

If they’re not able to stand up and vote their conscience then, then they’ll never be able to do it and they won’t be worth the title on their door: Representative.

I hear the liberal/cynical response to this: rich people can pay for daycare, and it’s the rich who are preventing any movement on this issue; all this demonstration will do is hurt poor people. While this may or may not be true, most people’s daycare depends, somewhere, on a low-income parent showing up to do their job. When that low-income parent is unable to find or afford daycare of their own, the pain will trickle uphill.

Meanwhile, the children of rich people ought to use their funds to fight this fight. If they can afford to get themselves someplace where an entire congregation of students can demonstrate, in the most public way possible, that they are, in fact, not going to attend school until this issue is addressed by Congress, then all the better.

Yes, there will be pain felt during this demonstration. There always is. Think of the men and women in the Civil Rights movement: the police dogs, the firehoses, the batons, the nooses. Yes, there will be pain. Single mothers will lose their jobs when they have no options for daycare. Fathers and mothers will scream and fight over who will stay home with the children, and women will be abused over their answers. Children will be beat for disobeying their mothers and fathers, and some will feel the wrath of the belt or the burn of the cigarette, the sting of the hard slap or the collision of the closed fist.

But will it be worth it? Is the right to go to school free from fear worth it?

If you think so, stand up and make your lives matter.

Stand up and go on strike.

I teach in Vermont, where every student goes on a week vacation starting on Monday. Use that week to plan, organize, and publicize. Talk to your parents about it. Let them know it is happening, and be willing to defend your position. If they make you go to the physical school on the Monday after vacation is over, make a sign and picket outside the front door. Get your friends to join you. Have someone call the news. Attract a lot of attention. But be deep and thoughtful. Stay somber. Remember why you’re there. Remember the dead bodies, the dead children, feel the fear of all those children having to run for their lives, the sound of gunfire coming from right behind them, the sight of their friends and teachers bleeding on the ground beside them.

They didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that. Refuse to become a victim.

Stand up. Stand up and go on strike.

The Art of the Sentence

I start teaching a class on the Art of the Sentence next week. In practical terms, it’s a grammar class, but kids don’t get excited about “grammar class.” They might get excited about art.

But the title is more than a trick; it’s not a misnomer. The class will consider the sentence as a work of art.

Kids don’t write sentences anymore. They write phrases. They type them into textland believing only their ideas will make it across. They don’t stop to consider their words.

Tweens and teenagers think words are transparent. Words are either windows on an idea, or else they blink and flash like a fire alarm, each blink and flash screaming into their minds terms like “racist,” “misogynist,” or “homophobe,” preventing any other part of the offending idea to make it across. They don’t understand that syntax, denotation, connotation, simile, and metaphor are active elements in the communication process; they don’t realize that words and phrases matter.

Part of the reason is because, according to our current understanding of brain development, tweens and early teenagers don’t yet have the ability to cognitively care about their audience as an audience. They may care about the person on the other end of their text as a person, but they don’t yet fully understand that, as a person, that person is not them, and as such, that person must be coaxed into understanding the foreign idea that is being presented to them. The tweens and teenagers don’t realize that the other person’s sentient mind must be respected before it will allow their foreign ideas entrance.

Without that appreciation for their audience’s mind, they don’t consider whether their ideas are actually worth anything. They just assume they are.

This lack of linguistic self-criticism means they’ve never actually worked on their raw ideas, never tried to shape them into a series of communicable words and phrases, never exerted themself upon their ideas the way artists exert themselves upon their raw materials, shaping and refining them until the idea is of value to others.

The art of the sentence is, in some sense, the art of thinking.

This is not to say that one must be able to write a grammatical sentence in order to be capable of thinking, but it is to say that the art of thinking requires the ability to manipulate abstract symbols and to arrange them according to some kind of communally-based syntax.

Most of us tell ourselves and our children that what makes humans different from other animals is our gift for language, and while this is not untrue, it glosses over the fact that many animals possess some kind of communal-based language.

Researchers have even translated some of these languages into English (well, translated them in part). We know, for instance, the sound a particular species of monkey makes to communicate to its neighbors that a large predator approaches on the ground, “and so we should all climb up into the trees,” versus the sound it uses to communicate when a large predator approaches from the sky, “and so we should all climb down to the ground.” We know how to translate messages from dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, gibbons, bees, a variety of birds. Examples are endless (as is the controversy that surrounds them).

We use the presence of these languages to arrange species on the heirarchy of thinking. We look at the greater or lesser presence of this ability, this ability to process the world through an observing and intentionally reactive brain (the presence of what Kant would call judgement), and we deem the creature more or less worthy of our protection.

Stimuli enters the brain in one form and exits in another. This implies to any impartial observer that something in that brain did work upon the stimuli. Unable to see the mechanism for ourselves, we reverse engineer the changes from the original stimuli to the changed stimuli and find in it a message: “I am here, and this is my judgement.”

When we hear the monkey “screaming” in the trees, we see for ourselves how all the other monkeys look down (or up), and we note their synchronicity in the act. This cues in us the idea that an actual, decodable message must exist within that scream, a message more nuanced than “danger.” In that nuance, we discover a sentient being capable of receiving stimuli from the outside world, processing that stimuli into meaningful terms, judging those terms and refining them into as simple a code as possible, and then communicating that code using the right emotive note to signal its import to the sentient beings on the other end of the communication, a note that helps filter it through the universal field of stimuli the other monkey must be encountering and tell it in no uncertain terms, “Deal with this stimuli first!”

The art of the sentence interrogates this process, this transformation, interpretation, and judgment of reality (imaginary or not) by a sentient mind, and it explores the ways in which the judgement can be converted into meaningful stimuli to be fed into another person’s reality.

By teaching this process, by exploring its in and outs as a system, I hope to not only improve my student’s writing skills, but to improve the linguistic systems within their brains.

Later, I’ll teach them to dance in that system using poetry and puns, and open to them the slip-sliding joy of linguistic whimsy, but for now, I only want them to realize the system exists and to grow curious as to its workings.

If I can pull that off, I’ll consider this class an unqualified success.

Hot for Teaching

I am coming up on a new quarter at my high school gig and a new semester at my college gig. I recently received my finished schedules for both of them, which means I have roughly a week and a half to prepare for all of them.

Despite my desire this summer to reinvent my college-level creative writing class, once the school year got going, I found myself too busy to act on it, so the class I’ll be starting next week will probably look much the same as the one before. I may get inspired between now and then to implement some changes to my weekly lectures, but the general syllabus of the class will remain the same.

As for my high-school teaching duties, I have another section of Dungeons & Dragons this quarter, which though it takes a lot of prep, doesn’t require as much as it used to thanks to the number of times I’ve taught it now. I also have Creative Writing, which will run like a simpler version of my college course (this one will be one-on-one, just me and a fifteen-year-old student, so it won’t run — and can’t run — exactly the same as a college course designed for two dozen 20-year-old students).

I have a bunch of other classes that will require some significant prep time though. I’ve taught on similar topics in the past, but these classes really need to be designed from the bottom up if I’m to address the unique needs of this year’s crop of students.

The first new class is called Talking Politics, Religion, and Sex: The Art of Difficult Conversations. This class will meet three times a week and include five upper-level students (the youngest is fifteen; the oldest is nineteen). I’ve asked one of the older students to act as our facilitator so that she can develop and demonstrate her speaking and listening skills as per her graduation requirements. The other students and I will act as the interlocutors, sharing our understandings and opinions on various difficult topics of the day. The students will participate in the selection of the daily topics, but I will provide each week’s general theme (politics, religion, or sex, for example).

I don’t want the class to just be a bullshit session, however, so each week will also include direct instruction in the various strategies, styles, and norms that come into play when we engage in difficult conversations. This isn’t something I can pull off the top of my head. I will need to do some research if I’m to understand exactly what I need to teach and then some creative time if I’m piece it back together in a form my students will recognize. Finally, I’ll need to do some systematic thinking to understand how I can weave the direct instruction into the flow of an overwhelmingly dicussion-based class.

The second new class is Women’s Studies, with a dose of Marginalized Communities. I’ve taught a version of this before during a series of seminars on the historic waves of Feminism, but that was to a classroom full of eager philosophy students. This version needs to meets the unique needs of a single teenage boy.

I have one intention with this class: to get this teenage boy to not become a sexual assailant. As a teenage boy growing up amidst rural poverty and ignorance, he is, unfortunately, at risk. I’m creating this class solely for him, and I’m creating it as the father of a young girl, the mentor to dozens of other young girls, and the professor of over a hundred young women. I don’t do this to protect them; I do this to make their lives easier and to ensure their sexual experiences are more free from tragedy than those of their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on back through eternity.

We see a lot of memes about the shotgun-toting father. I’d like to see one about the story-telling teacher, the one who can engender enough empathy in his male students that they begin to value their female counterparts not just for their bodies, but for their minds and their spirits, a teacher who turns his young male charges into boys and men who can see in girls and women the same struggles and desires that they see in themselves, and realize, when they look into their faces, that they’re looking at human beings, creatures with a right to just as much liberty as them, and not one iota less. Where’s that meme, huh?

So that’s the self-righteousness that I’m bringing into the class, which is obviously not a good thing. Self-righteousness does not a good teacher make. I need to tone it down and simply meet the kid where he is at…and then gently lead him into the future with the rest of us, a future where women are truly equal, not only in their opportunities, but in their estimations.

The “dose of marginalized communities” is included in the title as a tangential topic because it’s not my motivating force, but I do understand that the lack of empathy that opens him up to being a potential sexual assailant lies at the root of not only misogyny, but also of racism and nationalism, two more ideologies that lie like a curse across this country’s future. This understanding will be like a bass line beneath all of our discussions, but the class will focus more directly on his relationship to women; that is the fault line that will shake him to his core and loosen his ideologies up for a shift on everything else. I’m still not sure how to do that though.

Another relatively big class I need to teach is Civics. This particular class includes five students ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, and all of them were assigned to it (i.e., this is not a class they’ve asked for). I’ve taught some version of civics in a variety of contexts, including a deep dive into the Supreme Court and others into some of the agencies subsumed under the Executive branch.

But this class is a little bit different. First, I’ve yet to teach this particular combination of students, and I’m unclear as to how well they can work together, let alone my reservations as to how each of them will work (or can work) on their own. Leaving that aside, I’m also unclear as to my overall objective with the class. When the class is all said and done, what do I want them to understand and what do I want them to be able to do?

Two of my five students are eligible to vote. The other three are not far behind. When it comes time, I want all of them to be able to do that — to vote — and to do it in as informed a manner as possible. I don’t want to shape the way they think about political topics (they can vote for whatever and for whomever they like), but I do want to shape the way they think about their role in our government.

I want them to see the entire tree of our democracy, understand its main branches (including the military), and feel their own standpoint as being deep down among the roots. I want them to understand how their actions and their decisions help feed the entire tree. I want them to have a sense of civics that is less “how a bill becomes a law” than it is “how a person becomes a country.” I think that could be kind of fun.

I’m also teaching a small class to two students about The Art of the Sentence. I haven’t taught this one before, but I’d like to make it a staple of my quarterly offerings.

The majority of my high school students hate to write, and most of them have been socially promoted throughout their education, leading to a situation where not only do they hate to write, but they flat out don’t know how to.

I haven’t ever addressed this question head on. I’ve focused more on the shallowness of their thinking than on their inability to write down their thoughts (neglecting, in the process, a major contributor to the cause of their shallowness). With so many of them hating to write, I concentrate a lot on their verbal skills (hence, Dungeons & Dragons), trying to get them to ask questions when they don’t understand something and to reiterate a speaker’s points when they think they do. When I’ve forced them to write, I’ve concentrated on the way they introduce, support, and transition through their ideas, focusing my instruction on the highest levels of their argument.

I’m hoping this new class will correct my error. By reducing their focus to the sentence (rather than to, say, the paragraph or the argument), I hope to change the entire game that they’ve been taught to play, and in the process, try to engender a new joy for writing.

I don’t yet know how to do that exactly. I don’t know what example sentences to provide; how much grammatical jargon to use, and whether to teach it and insist on its use directly; how much time to spend on punctuation; when to introduce each piece of new information; how to assess for their understanding and practice; etc. But regardless of how I do it, I know I have to do it, and for that, I’m excited.

The final class on my upcoming schedule is called Technology. It’s a one-on-one class with a graduating student who simply needs a quarter-credit in Technology to graduate. Essentially, I can make the class about anything, as long as it includes technology. I have a couple of ideas: podcasting; blogging; a conceptual breakdown of the Internet, supported by technical materials…but I haven’t spoken with the student about it yet, so I don’t want to make any assumptions. The podcasting thing could be fun, but we’ll see — it’s really up to him.

That may seem like a lot to prep before January 23rd, and the truth of the matter is that it is, but each of the topics are of real interest to me, so the prep is something I’ll enjoy. I’m sometimes too busy or exhausted for it, but I know that every moment I can give to it will pay me back in spades.

I guess one word for what I do is called work, but working is easy when you truly love what you do.

A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation whose military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and second, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.

Using Dungeons & Dragons in the Classroom

This post is for teachers who are interested in using Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom. This is not to convince you that doing so is a good thing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the web to persuade you of the educational value of roleplaying games; we don’t need one more of them.

But we do seem to need an article where a teacher takes the time to explain how he actually uses Dungeons & Dragons in the classroom — not the why, but the how.

I’ve been using Dungeons & Dragons as an educator for three years now, but until I started using it in the classroom, I had never played a single game. Two of my co-teachers used it one quarter, and I was lucky enough to share a corner of their classroom at the time. Through observation, I was able to learn the dynamics of the game without having to play the game.

The following quarter, I took over as Dungeon Master. It would be my first time at the table.

What I learned during my observation period was that Dungeons & Dragons is based on storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you know the rules because there are plenty of ways to look them up, but it does matter that you understand the rules of storytelling.

For the past three years, instead of asking my students to learn about storytelling from reading works of literature, I’ve embedded them in the very fabric of it, asking them to make their own heroic decisions instead of reflecting on the heroic decisions of some third-party character. Through the effects of their actions on the story, they’ve experienced when narrative tension is working and when it is not; they’ve experienced the way a character’s motivations bring them into conflict with other people; and they’ve developed an appreciation for imaginative details, sensing when too much is too much and when too little is not enough.

In addition, playing the game increased their sense of self-worth. When their characters succeeded in the fantasy world, they received the same flood of accomplishment as their characters, which provided them with a visceral understanding of narrative catharsis and the chemical reward that comes from fulfilling a goal.

I didn’t do anything special during these first three years; all I did was play the game. I didn’t attach the game to any academic standard or break it down into a series of lessons. At the start of each course, I didn’t waste time explaining to the students why we were doing this. I greeted them as they walked in the door, opened our two copies of The Players Handbook (5th Edition), and asked them to follow the steps outlined in the book to create their first character. I didn’t ask if they knew how to play the game. I just told them to get started.

The first few times I ran a campaign, I found pre-designed quests on the Internet. I didn’t know much about campaigns, but I learned that there’s something called The Adventurer’s League, an official venue of Dungeons & Dragons. Restraining my search to campaigns that carried the seal of the league, I found enough (free) campaigns to get us started.

(The company behind Dungeons & Dragons recently launched a website called The Dungeon Master’s Guild, where players from around the world can share campaigns and resources, review each other’s work, and earn their reputation as DMs; you can think of it as an App Store for D&D — and it makes it a heck of a lot easier to find pre-designed campaigns nowadays).

After our first few campaigns, one of my students asked if he could be the Dungeon Master for our next game. I immediately agreed, told him how to find a campaign on the Internet, and a week later, off we went. This would be my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons from the characters’ side of the table. It was great. I didn’t push an agenda on either the DM or the other players. I simply sat with them as a peer and played the game.

A few months later, when I returned to the Dungeon Master’s chair, I didn’t want to use a pre-generated campaign. I had played enough times, I’d decided, to attempt a campaign of my own. I did not bring an educational agenda to this process. I imagined something I thought would be fun, and then I set out to create it.

At the time, I was reading several books on the French Revolution, and I decided to create a campaign where the player-characters would assist in a political revolution. I dressed the story in the obligatory accoutrements of medieval fantasy (instead of the peasants rising up against their king, a town of dwarves would rise up against their human overlords, the highest of whom would be a ). I then developed major plot points for the story and prepared a few battle encounters that I suspected the player-characters would want to engage in.

After about five or six hours of solid preparation, I was ready to lead what became a six-month long adventure. While the students didn’t have any homework, I found that I did. To stay at least a few steps ahead of them, narrative wise, I spent about an hour each week crafting the next few days’ worth of adventures. It was a creative prep for me, however, so it didn’t feel much like work — I wasn’t planning a lesson as much as writing a story. Prepping for class took time, yes, but the time it took was fun.

Last year, I taught two sections of Dungeons & Dragons. The first group had played together for a while, but the second included students who had never played before. To reduce my prep load, I taught my advanced students how to design campaigns on their own, showing them various topics in the Dungeon Masters Guide, advising them to consider the motivations of their non-player characters, and asking them to reconsider various details of their worlds, but mostly, I taught them how to be efficient with informational texts and how to stay a few steps ahead of their characters.

One student didn’t get to finish his campaign. Unfortunately, I’m only running one section this quarter and some of the players haven’t developed the social-emotional skills to be led by another student. So instead of letting him lead a campaign of his own, I am working with him on an independent project where he will prepare a campaign for publication on The DMs Guild. This student is a graduating senior, and I’m trying to show him how he can make a little bit of money if he’s willing to follow his passion.

The other section is a mix of experienced players and beginners, and because of that mix, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of having the students spend the first few days with their heads in The Players Handbook (a necessary stage when creating a character), I’m going to have them play the experience of creating their characters.

I’m not going to tell them about any of the races or classes. I want them to birth their characters with their imaginations. If they imagine a crocodile with wings who can also weave magic, I want to honor that personification and ask them to honor it as well. We’re going to dramatize the process of developing proficiencies and skills, gaining gold and equipment, and earning the power of magic. They’re going live the experience of their backstories, and through that, they’ll learn how to develop themselves and their characters into daring adventurers. My students are rural and mostly poverty-stricken, but they’re going to experience, if only in their fantasies, the process a person must go through if they want something more out of life.

If you’re a teacher who is already persuaded to try roleplaying games in your classroom and you’re wondering how to do it, this is what worked for me: I simply sat down with the students and played.

Now, a little caveat. I teach at an independent school in Vermont, so I’m not accountable to the strict array of standards that apply to most public schools. My school’s standards include a large variety of social-emotional skills — e.g., cooperation, creative problem-solving, leadership, ethical decision making, the ability to empathize, etc. — and almost all of them can be satisfied by playing a standard game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully, I don’t have a curriculum coordinator breathing down my neck.

But I imagine with just a hint of ingenuity that a motivated public school teacher could connect Dungeons & Dragons to whatever standards they are required to follow.

If you’re an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve asked my students keep a journal of their character’s adventures. I’ve asked them to write original backstories for their characters. I’ve quizzed them on their ability to find, read, and comprehend the sometimes-complex information in the text of their Handbooks. Dungeons & Dragons is a communications-based game; there’s enough in for the English Language Arts.

This year, as part of the experience of playing their backstory, I am going to ask each player to consider the social contexts of their hometown. They’ll decide on a governing structure for their town, detail its economy, and populate it with a greater or lesser sense of political diversity. Instead of analyzing existing societies, the students will create ones of their own.

My idea is to expand the range of skills the students develop by including a deeper connection to the social sphere. This will have the added benefit of increasing the academic value of the course because I’m targeting some of the standards my school has for Social Studies (most of which apply to any school’s standards for Social Studies).

The difficulty will be in integrating one character’s sphere with another and all the characters’ spheres with each other, but it’s necessary if they’re to experience the narrative catharsis previous students experienced. School starts tomorrow and I haven’t quite solved this one yet, but I trust the solution will come before its absence becomes a challenge (teaching, after all, does include a bit of faith).

But in the meantime, I’m just excited to get started.

I hope, sometime in the future, you will be to.