CALL for Chapter Proposals: Adaptation as Investigations: Critically Rethinking Medium, Genre, and Text

Series: Youth Culture and Pedagogy in the 21st Century

William Reynolds and Brad Porfilio, editors

Lexington Books

Proposed volume title:

Adaptation as Investigations: Critically Rethinking Medium, Genre, and Text

P. L. Thomas, editor

[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Throughout the 1980s, music fans began to debate music videos as the popularity of MTV increased. Those debates often involved arguments about both the film quality of each video and whether or not the adaptation of song to video remained true to the original song.

As pop culture, music videos created a text for students to investigate media and genre as well as their own reading, re-reading, writing, and re-rewriting of the world. As Johns (2008) explains, students as both readers and writers need to gain genre awareness—in their roles as students but also in their emerging agency and autonomy. Text adaptations—multiple text versions across media and forms developing from one foundational text (see here for examples)—are ideal contexts for investigating how medium, genre, form, creator, and audience all interact to create meaning(s).

This volume seeks chapters that begin with an adaptation unit (texts across media and genres) in order to investigate medium, genre, form, reading, writing, text, and voice as elements of critical literacy. Chapter authors will be encouraged to investigate boundaries of texts and media by confronting texts such as traditional print texts, film, comics/graphic novels, songs, web-based texts, and emerging forms as they are represented in text adaptations (for example, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a traditional novel adapted into film and graphic novel).

Chapters should address the following points of emphasis:

  • The role of critical literacy in the broader focus on literacy in formal schooling.
  • The traditional assumptions about text as they are challenged and reshaped by a wide-range of media and genres.
  • School-based assumptions about reading and writing as they contrast with pop culture representations of reading and writing.
  • Traditional norms of “literary” texts as those inform and marginalize popular texts (among a wide range of media).
  • The tensions created when an original text is adapted or re-booted and how those multiple forms investigate “quality” texts in terms of remaining true to the original and as unique texts.
  • How adaptation, allusion, fan fiction, and sampling (for example) complicate traditional views of plagiarism and citation in formal academic settings (as opposed to pop culture).
  • How adaptation and collaborative texts (film, comics/graphic novels) confront text analysis and “ownership” of texts.
  • The role of the New Media (blogging, Twitter, etc.) in understanding text, reading, and writing as well as medium and genre.

Interested chapter authors are invited to submit proposals and the following information by May 31, 2014 (an initial list of contributors is needed before a contract can be issued):

  • 300-word proposal with title.
  • 50-75 word author(s) bio.
  • 10 key words.
  • Preferred deadline for first full draft ( a final timeline for the project will be designed once proposals have been accepted).

Preliminary plans are for including about 15 chapters of 6000-7000 words. Citations will be in the most recent edition of APA.

Send proposals and any queries to


Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Johns, A M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest. Language Teaching, 41(2): 237-252.

Thomas, P. L. (in-press). Adventures in adaptation: Confronting texts in a time of standardization. In P. Paugh, T. Kress, & R. Lake, eds., Critical and new literacies: Teaching towards democracy with/in/through post-modern and popular culture texts. TBD.

Thomas, P. L. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.

Legalizing Marijuana Offers Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform

The role of causality in educational research needs to be questioned on the basis that education is not the same as medicine. As Biesta says: “Being a student is not an illness, just as teaching is not a cure.” (2007, p8) We should never assume that education is a “push and pull” process of simply linear causal relationships.

Tait Coles, Take no heroes; only inspiration.

“Batman has officially been kicking the ass of Gotham’s villains for 75 years,” explains Ryan Kristobak, “and so to honor the Dark Knight, the Warner Bros. panel unveiled the ‘Batman Beyond’ animated short at this year’s WonderCon.”

For long-time and recent fans of Batman, however, the legends of the Dark Knight are complicated by the many versions that exist among the DC comic book and graphic novel universe, films, TV, animated series, and video games.

The Batman Myth has several foundational characteristics and common themes that are nested in the Caped Crusader’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27 in 1940: Batman’s essential nature as a detective and crime fighter, the ambiguous relationship between Batman and the Gotham police department and city officials, and the larger themes about justice that are contrasted by Batman’s vigilante tendencies.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of the film trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale, the opening scene framing the film also highlights a central message reflecting how justice is traditionally characterized in the U.S. The mayor of Gotham and Commissioner Gordon preside over Harvey Dent Day, named for the district attorney who is killed as Two-Face in The Dark Knight:

[the Mayor is giving a speech being at hosted at Wayne Manor]

Mayor: Harvey Dent Day may not be our oldest public holiday, but we’re here tonight because it’s one of the most important. Harvey Dent’s uncompromising stand against organized crime has made Gotham a safer place than it was at the time of his death, eight years ago. This city has seen a historic turn around. No city is without crime, but this city is without organized crime because of Dent’s act gave law enforcement teeth in its fight against the mob. Now people are talking about repealing the Dent Act, and to them I say, not on my watch.

[the audience claps]

Mayor: I wanna thank the Wayne Foundation for hosting this event, and I’m told, Mr. Wayne couldn’t be here tonight. I’m sure he’s with us in spirit….

Mayor: Jim Gordon, can tell you the truth about Harvey Dent. He could…but I’ll let him tell you himself. Commissioner Gordon!

[the audience claps as Gordon makes his way to the stand, Gordon looks down at his prepared speech and says to himself as he remembers the real truth of what happened to Dent]

Commissioner Gordon: The truth…

[he addresses the audience]

Commissioner Gordon: I have a speech telling the truth about Harvey Dent. Maybe the time isn’t right.

[he puts the speech away in his jacket pocket]

Commissioner Gordon: Maybe right now, all you need to know is that there are one thousand inmates in Blackgate Prison as the direct result of the Dent Act. These are violent criminals, essential cogs in the organized crime machine. Maybe, for now, all I should say about the death of Harvey Dent is this; it has not been for nothing. (transcript found here)

Justice in Nolan’s Gotham reflects the central elements of justice found in the U.S.: the right laws, the right people to enforce those laws, and the evidence those laws are working represented by a growing prison population.

Reagan Era Mass Incarceration and Education Accountability

As I have detailed in Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, the 1980s and the Reagan administration planted the seeds of both an era of mass incarceration, labeled the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and the high-stakes accountability era in public education.

The most troubling aspects of both mass incarceration and high-stakes education accountability are that the policies have created, not ended, the claimed problems they were designed to address.

Over the past thirty years, the criminal justice system in the U.S. has filled prisons with a disproportionate number of African American men as part of our most recent war on drugs—despite whites and African Americans using recreational drugs at the same rates.

The current era of mass incarceration has unintended consequences similar to prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s:

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the “drys” had their law, while the “wets” had their liquor.

The recent legalization of marijuana suggests a possible social recognition that traditional views of the right laws enforced by the right people and resulting in the right people sitting in prison is the wrong formula for either justice or a peaceful and equitable society.

Along with a growing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana is a concurrent discussion of releasing prior drug offenders from prison, again suggesting a social admission that the laws we establish create criminals, but rarely deter crime.

Seeking justice must not be separated from seeking equity. If the shift in how people in the U.S. view marijuana signals anything, I think, it shows a broader concern for equity: Just as changing inequitable laws surrounding powder cocaine and crack came to represent an inequitable criminal justice system, legalizing marijuana is yet another effort to move the pursuit of justice in the U.S. toward a pursuit of equity.

Legalizing Marijuana: A Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform

The war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration have proven to be the wrong policies for achieving justice or equity in the U.S. Directly, we know that mass incarceration negatively impacts children (see Holly Yettick and Children of the Prison Boom).

But the parallel era of high-stakes education accountability shares the central flaws now being recognized in mass incarceration: high-stakes accountability creates failure in schools, teachers, and students (see FairTest’s Reports: High Stakes Testing Hurts Education).

Under Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state education policies have remained focused on identifying the right standards and the right tests, most recently Common Core standards and so-called “next generation” tests. Unlike the move toward legalizing marijuana, education reform remains trapped and unable to see the Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests, as Duncan proclaimed in 2009:

Until states develop better assessments—which we will support and fund through Race to the Top—we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress—but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

Debating the quality of Common Core and the related tests, however, are the wrong arguments because high-stakes accountability is the wrong policy paradigm just as the war on drugs and mass incarceration are the wrong policies for justice.

Adopting and implementing Common Core as yet another round of seeking the right standards and the right tests will not work. We have three decades of evidence on that approach revealing that there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement (see Mathis, 2012).

The war on drugs has proven to be finding ourselves in a hole and continuing to dig. Legalizing marijuana is dropping the shovel and choosing instead to acknowledge that failure and to try another approach, one more rightly attuned to equity.

This is a lesson high-stakes accountability advocates need to learn.

Common Core and the related high-stakes tests are the wrong approach to equity and high-quality education; they are finding ourselves in a hole we created and continuing to dig.

As legalizing marijuana signals a possible turn to the end of mass incarceration, we need also to end the era of high-stakes accountability in education.

Let’s choose instead An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform.

Two Americas: George W. Bush and Neil deGrasse Tyson

This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men,” Mychal Denzel Smith asserts in “We Built This Country on Inequality,” adding, “That that persists today isn’t a flaw in the design. Everything is working as the founders intended.”

Smith’s claim has two parts that challenge the Great American Myth of meritocracy: those two parts being then and now.

At the turn of the twentieth century, from 1899 until 1908, the buildings that constitute Clemson University in South Carolina were built by convict labor, as explained in Lyn Riddle’s report detailing the research of Clemson assistant professor of English Rhondda Thomas:

So far, [Thomas] has documented the names of 572 men, all but 29 of them African Americans.

They made a million bricks to build Tillman Hall. They built Hardin Hall, the oldest classroom building, and Trustee House, home to the first chemistry professor. They cleared the land and built dikes. The oldest was 67, the youngest 12.

“They made it possible for South Carolina to get back on its feet, to educate young men to make a contribution,” Thomas said.

They were but a step away from the sharecroppers and slaves who preceded them, Thomas said. Some likely were former slaves and most certainly the sons of former slaves.

“Their labor was valued but not their lives,” she said. “It is carrying on the slavery institution.”

In fact, she said, the convicts were legally known as slaves of the state.

Smith’s assertion about then is disturbingly grounded in stories such as this one—an American infrastructure and economy built on the backs of slaves, prisoners, and exploited workers. To deny that past requires ignoring the facts of history, a history not peculiar to the South but certainly prevalent here.

But what of Smith’s argument about inequity now?

It is 2014 and there are two Americas: one America inhabited by George W. Bush and another America inhabited by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In George W. Bush’s America, the birth right of privilege creates a set of circumstances in which being white and wealthy equals a person having to try repeatedly to fail—and even then, the safety net of privilege is likely to work.

Bush himself has joked about his mediocre academic achievement at Yale, but few ever discuss how a C student from Yale eventually went to Harvard graduate school. Bush’s privilege powered him straight through minimal effort as a student (even though he enjoyed a legacy entrance to Yale virtually anyone would covet), his own personal struggle with alcohol, and (again by his own admission) a relatively unimpressive career until he entered politics. The son of a president and a child of an extremely powerful and wealthy family of “old” money suggest his successful runs to be governor of Texas and two-time president of the U.S. were inevitable.

To be blunt, George W. Bush had only to get out of his own way on his journey, one that is now being punctuated by his having an art showing that almost no one else would be afforded. In fact, the George W. Bush art showings are the ideal examples of the America that runs on privilege: It isn’t what you do, but who you are (and money doesn’t hurt). “That gentle, civilised art can wipe away a surprising quantity of blood,” Jonathan Jones muses.

But there is another America, the one in which Neil deGrasse Tyson lives:

I’ve never been female. But I have been black my whole life, and, so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society, and I’ll be brief, ’cause I want to try to get more questions.

When I look at, throughout my life, I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old, my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium. (I was a little younger than Victor at the time, although he did it before I did.) And so I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions, and all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete? Oh, don’t you want to”– I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And so, fortunately my depth of interest was so deep, and so fueled, enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just leaped for more fuel and I kept going.

In this America, the momentum of privilege is replaced by the anchors of bias—racism, classism, sexism. Tyson continues:

I walked out of a store one time, and the alarm went off, and, so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting exploitation of this — what a scam that was! I think people should do that more often….

So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we talk about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.”

And this America remains now, as Smith recognizes:

[T]he architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system….

It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes. It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.

And this America is the world in which Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son live:

On Sunday, I took my son to see two movies at a French film festival that was in town. The local train was out. We walked over to Amsterdam to flag down a cab. The cab rolled right past us and picked up two young-ish white women. It’s sort of amazing how often that happens. It’s sort of amazing how often you think you are going to be permitted to act as Americans do and instead receive the reminder—”Oh that’s right, we are just some niggers. I almost forgot.”…

I think of that cab driver passing me by on Amsterdam. We are not on the block anymore. We are in America, where our absence of virtue is presumed, and we must eat disrespect in sight of our sons. And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.

There was a time in the U.S., then, when the criminalization of powder cocaine and crack were distinctly different, an ugly snapshot of the two Americas detailed above. Once that inequity became too much for political leaders to ignore, those same leaders used that inequity to make distracting and mostly symbolic efforts to address the race- and class-based differences in punishment.

But now? Now continues the two Americas because, as Michelle Alexander details in depth, the U.S. remains in an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts African Americans, notably males:

Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s. (Race and the Drug War)

Two Americas exist, but not as one of then and one of now.

Two Americas exist now, and as Thomas concludes about convict labor building Clemson University, “‘History is hidden in plain sight,’” and Riddle adds:

Consider that a building built by convicts is named for Ben Tillman, a former governor who as a U.S. senator in 1900 said in a speech in Congress, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern the white man, and we never will.”

I must add that the history of inequity continues in plain sight as a condition of now, although too many choose instead to gaze at the inadequate portraits of a privileged past president with too much time on his paint-stained hands.

Paternalism, Old or New, Blinds

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

Ephesians 5:22-24

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Colossians 3:18

The Olinka do not believe that girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why  she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.

Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Ephesians 6:5

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Colossians 3:22

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
― James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

I spent the last third of my career as a high school English teacher also serving as the soccer coach for the school’s boys and girls soccer programs. The reasons I took the coaching position included my own concerns about how public school coaches often behaved in ways that no one would have tolerated by teachers in the classroom—although most of those coaches were also classroom teachers.

Coaches routinely berated players, including the use of profanity, and in the South, the line between church and state simply did not exist since coaches always led players in prayer, especially just before a game or match started in full view of the fans.

For most of my life and career in my small hometown, the head football coach—who worked as athletic director and assistant principal—blared profanity over the stadium intercom during practices and even swore at students while issuing them demerits for profanity.

That coach won football games, state championships, and thus, essentially not a soul ever uttered a concern—even in those moments when the profanity was joined with racial slurs.

I did complain so when I became a coach, I set out to change the culture of my teams both in my behavior and in the messages I sent.

When I notified my team that I would not lead them in prayer—explaining why—and that before games teammates who wanted to pray needed to organize that and then join the team for a pre-game huddle, that change did prompt complaints. But that change also brought players to me in private who thanked me—players who had never spoken a word about coach-led prayers making them uncomfortable before.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding Clemson University and whether or not head coach Dabo Swinney is coercing his players with his religious beliefs, I was certain of two things: (1) local public opinion would overwhelming support Swinney, and (2) despite Swinney’s good intentions (I do trust he has only good intentions), the situation is, in fact, inappropriate in the context of Swinney’s power as head coach and Clemson being a state university.

But the Clemson football/religion controversy is much more than the narrow situation because at its source, the controversy is about a recurring human flaw: the allure and failure of paternalism, both on grand and small scales.

Nettie and Celie are sisters who exchange letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Nettie reveals to Celie throughout the correspondence Nettie’s own awakening to the dangers of missionary zeal during her experience in Africa. Celie, who remains home in the Deep South, confronts her own awakening about the traditional view of women in the South—the subservience of women and wives occurring, however, in both sisters’ worlds.

As a work about racism and sexism, The Color Purple ultimately is a confrontation of paternalism. And paternalism is the driving force behind the justifications for misogyny and slavery: Women were to be protected because of their inherent frailties and slaves were to be taken care of by their owners because of Blacks’ inherent inadequacies.

Subjugating women to the control of men and Blacks to the control of Whites was repeatedly framed as acts of good intentions and then linked to the ultimate paternalism—the Word of God.

When the U.S. came against the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the political response was something that—looking back—seems nearly impossible to believe. Japanese-Americans were subjected to internment:

In 1942, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered thousands of Japanese Americans to leave their homes behind and take up residence in remote detainment camps. About two thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

The most famous of the camps, located in California’s Owens Valley, was called the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

History reveals this pattern at a stunning rate: At the time, the unjustifiable appears justifiable and the acts are with good intentions, designed to protect everyone involved.

Treating women as second-class humans, U.S. slavery, the Japanese Internment—grand human errors all—are daily matched on smaller scales, however, in the pervasive paternalism that drives people in power to control those within their authority.

To suggest that Swinney and Clemson is a unique or isolated failure of paternalism, or that this crossing of the line between church and state is a lingering failure of the South is to miss the real message of the controversy.

And the controversy isn’t just about sports—although an easy scapegoat.

Consider education broadly. As Whitman notes: “In the narrowest sense, all American schools are paternalistic.” This comment, however, rests in a larger piece serving to endorse “no excuses” schools—a central justification being Whitman’s argument that a new paternalism deserves to be embraced:

Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Women must be subservient to men and wives to husbands because women lack certain qualities (that men have). The same with slaves. The same with the poor (who tend to be people of color).

And therein is the problem—a problem not unrelated to the Clemson/Swinney controversy: beware justifications of paternalism on grand and small scales, especially when the person in authority is above reproach.

Parents, teachers, and coaches all face a tremendous paradox: Those roles are by their nature prone to paternalism (and maternalism) by necessity because (unlike stereotypes of females, African Americans, and people in poverty) children in fact lack some qualities that adults (literally as parents or in locos parentis) are obligated to monitor and even control.

The paradox grows from when anyone in authority confronts her/his paternalism, the fact of that authority and the possibility of coercion must check that paternalism against some moral imperatives: (1) Is the paternalistic drive based in a deficit view of those subjected to the authority? (2) Is the paternalistic drive grounded in a moment of crisis? and (3) Is that crisis genuine or fabricated as a circular argument for justifying the acts?

Public education embracing “no excuses” ideologies and Dabo Swinney infusing his football program with Christianity (small scale paternalism) are in no way the Japanese Internment, U.S. slavery, or the historical weight of misogyny (grand scale paternalism), but they fail young people in ways that are just as hard to justify as much larger social scars facing humanity.

Our ability to see in hindsight historically grand failures of paternalism should help sharpen our ability to recognize the failure of paternalism on smaller scales.

People in authority—such as coaches—often get passes they don’t deserve, and acts grounded in assumed positive contexts—such as religion—are often above reproach.

Authority, religion, paternalism, and missionary zeal, combined, are dangerous and likely to fail us all, regardless of anyone’s good intentions. (Allow me to point back to Nettie’s experience in The Color Purple.)

Authority and its necessary paternalistic impulses must always be tempered with humility and the ability to see the world with other people’s eyes—particularly when those other people are likely intimidated and coerced by that authority.

I think it is not ours to cast stones at Swinney because he is us. Every time anyone thinks “what is right for me is right for you,” she/he is falling into the same trap of paternalism that we must recognize and avoid. And although I cannot guarantee a line has been crossed at Clemson, I am deeply suspicious it has because the responses from all involved remain righteous, and I know we all are prone to being trapped in the amber of the moment, the amber of our assumptions.

Let’s not cast stones, but let’s ask some important questions:

  1. Do we want our athletic coaches to also serve as our athletes’ spiritual leaders?
  2. How do we justify Christianity (or any religion) in the context of competitive and violent sport?
  3. If the exact same situation were occurring but Swinney was as devout about being Hindu, not Christian, would public reaction be the same?
  4. And how do we treat as sacred the wall between church and state in our public institutions so that both church and state remain honored?

And let’s be sure to answer these recognizing that paternalism on scales grand and small tends to blind us from the answers we seek.

“There’s a Muslim in America Named Muhammad Ali”

There’s a Muslim in America named Muhammad Ali.

Louis Farrakhan, The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens with contrasting responses to Muhammad Ali, highlighted by the awkward ceremony in which George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The documentary follows footage of that ceremony with Louis Farrakan struggling with Ali’s pronouncement that Ali was “still a nigger.”

David Zirin calls The Trials of Muhammad Ali “the best documentary ever made about the most famous draft-resister in human history,” situating the documentary against the Will Smith bio-pic and other documentaries. I felt the same tension between trying to recreate Ali and the historical Ali when I watched HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (see my earlier post, Ali: “You must listen to me”).

To me, that historical and complicated Ali remains out of reach for many in the U.S.:

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in Fight of the Century, Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, 1971

The documentary ran on PBS and can be viewed streaming online, but I remain uncertain—despite the power of the documentary—about the American character in 2014 and whether or not we can fully connect with a black man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee in a white world.

My reservations, however, do not deter me from recommending that everyone tries by starting with this documentary that forces viewers to confront the uncomfortable.

David Susskind calls Ali a “simplistic fool,” and Jerry Lewis adds that Ali is a “big bag of wind”—just two of numerous scenes in which white men berate and demean Ali.

Ali smiles. Ali jabs with his wit and even with a cool detachment.

Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam are characters in this documentary, as are Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Carlos, and Tommy Smith (just to highlight a few)—with Ali always at the center of the tensions this part of U.S. history entails.

The literal trial of Ali was his refusal to serve in Vietnam, but the film also dramatizes in detailed fashion how Ali as a converted Muslim was a trial for Ali and the U.S.

A key scene, for me, is sports writer Robert Lipsyte discussing how the New York Times refused to print Muhammad Ali’s Muslim name, maintaining Cassius Clay, to which Lipsyte states: “Nobody asked John Wayne or Rock Hudson what their names were.”

The history of Ali during the volatile 1960s and into the 1970s, the focus of the documentary, is the history of the U.S. Both are complicated, and both are filled with contradictions.

If you want to come closer to understanding both Ali and the often ignored aspects of U.S. history—the Civil Rights Era that dare not be uttered—then you should view The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

Since viewing the documentary twice, I am left wrestling with Farrakhan smiling as he speaks about Ali battering opponents and taunting them with “What’s my name?”

And now that refrain haunts me as does Ali’s “You must listen to me.”

I am not sure that we must, but I know we should.

For Further Consideration

The Eleven Men Behind Cassius Clay

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Seeking Equity: Not “If,” But “How” and “Why”

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04): A Decade of Forgetting

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, David Zirin highlights a nearly concurrent anniversary:

Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other….

April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.

Pat Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will likely be portrayed as a man in uniform—but not as the man he was:

Pat Tillman (11/6/76 – 4/22/04)

And despite his tragic death being the result of “friendly fire,” despite the now exposed political manipulation of Tillman’s service and death, despite the lies—Tillman, if his death is acknowledged at all, will be misrepresented once again—waved like a flag to keep the public’s gaze distracted:


The truth, however ugly, is available in The Tillman Story (2010), and ESPN offers an Outside the Lines special, Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy.

The Tillman story, ultimately, is a story about us, about the U.S., about the myths that deform. On the tenth anniversary of Tillman’s death, I invite you to read below a post (revised) from 2012.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: There’s a Reason Captain America Wears a Mask

With the release of The Tillman Story (2010), Pat Tillman’s brother, Richard, appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time and offered yet another narrative of Pat’s life and death, one the Tillman family is willing to tell, but one the American public and political leaders are unwilling to ask about or retell.

Richard was frank and struggling on Maher’s HBO show, which included a clip from Pat’s memorial where Richard made a blunt and impassioned effort to tell the truth about his brother in the face of the political need to maintain American Mythology—even when those myths are deceptive, even when those myths are at the expense of people.

Pat Tillman was a stellar athlete who succeeded in college and rose to unique status in the NFL, where he did a very un-American thing, stepped away from a multi-million dollar contract, to do a very American thing, enlist in the military after 9/11 in order to serve his country. The news and political stories of Tillman’s decision played down the apparent rejection of materialism in Tillman’s volunteering to serve in the military, but the official stories began to craft a narrative starring Pat Tillman as Captain America.

Apparently, we could mask a not-so-subtle challenge to our materialistic existence and consumer culture as long as that masked hero would justify our wars.

Then Tillman died in the line of duty.

Then the U.S. government was exposed for building a story around Tillman’s death that was untrue: Pat was killed by “friendly fire” (a disarming term for an incomprehensible and gruesome fact of wars) and not at the hands of the enemy as officials initially claimed—to Pat’s brother who was also serving and nearby, to Pat’s family, and to the entire country.

Then Richard Tillman, still boiling with anger, said on Maher’s show that Pat should have retaliated in order to save himself against the “friendly fire.”

Beyond the continuing chasm between the real life and death of Pat Tillman and the narratives created around him, the release of the Tillman documentary presents the American public with a story that isn’t very flattering. The Tillman Story depends on the ambiguous meaning of “story,” as a synonym for “narrative” and “lie,” to offer another layer to the growing truths and distortions connected with why Pat Tillman joined the military, how he died, and the complex human being who he was.

Captain America and the Mask of Patriotism

Now, if we place the Tillman stories against the debate in the military over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we notice that in this culture we endorse masking reality as a good and even honorable thing. We confront the Great American Myth that never allows us to ask, much less tell.

This military policy based on deception is ironically our central cultural narrative, one political leaders perpetuate since their political success depends upon speaking to our cultural myths instead of to reality. We are a country committed to don’t ask, don’t tell.

Pat Tillman’s life story and the corrupted narrative invented by politicians and the military to hide the truth and propagandize at the expense of a man and his life are tragic and personal myths that we are ignoring still. If political leaders will fabricate preferred stories at the expense of a single person, we can expect the same about the institutions central to our democracy, such as our public education system and teachers.

Such is a disturbing confirmation of the “myths that deform” that Paulo Freire cautioned about in his examination of the failures of “banking” concepts of education.

In this new era of hope and change, the Obama administration, we must be diligent to ask and tell, especially when it comes to our public schools. The false dichotomy of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, is a distraction from the reality of political leaders expressing corporate narratives to ensure the balance of power favoring the status quo. Leaders are often compelled to maintain cultural myths because black-and-white messages are politically effective.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are now leading a renewed assault on public education, and directly teachers, under the banner of civil rights—just as Pat Tillman’s life and death were buried beneath claims of patriotism raised like Captain America’s shield so no one could see behind it.

The reality that Obama and Duncan cannot ask or tell about is poverty—and its impact on the lives and learning of children. Acknowledging poverty is an affront to the American Dream; confronting poverty is political dynamite. Blaming teachers and schools instead without offering the evidence works because this is a message we are willing to acknowledge and hear.

For example, a group from the ruling elite of schools, self-described as “educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America,” placed themselves squarely in the context of President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s charge against teachers and the status quo; their manifesto states: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income—it is the quality of their teacher.” [1]

The names of the leaders—Klein, Rhee, Vallas—appear impressive, and their sweeping claims are compelling—except that the substance of their message is false.

Narratives are powerful, and telling those narratives requires diligence, a willingness to say something often enough to make the created story sound more credible than reality—until the truth is masked beneath a web of narratives that makes truth harder to accept than the lies that seem to conform to all the myths that deform us (rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap, a rising tide lifts all boats).

“Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand” speaks to an American faith in the market. “[U]ntil we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems” triggers Americans’ blind willingness to compete and an enduring faith in schools as tools of social reform. They are compelling because Americans have been saying them for a century.

Just as the fabricated story of Pat Tillman and his sacrifice justified war.

“I don’t believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own” (Walt Gardner) sounds weak, fatalistic, in the face of our myths, the words of soft people eager to shift the blame. It is something we dare not tell.

Just as the smoldering facts of Pat Tillman’s death remain too hard to ask about and too hard to tell.

But only the latter are supported by evidence. But only the latter contradict the Great American Myths about which we dare not ask, we dare not tell.

Captain America wears a mask for a reason: The myth is easier to look at, easier to tell about than the truth hidden underneath—whether we are asking about and looking hard at the death of a complex man, Pat Tillman, or the complex influences of poverty on the lives and learning of children across our country.

[1] See recent evidence to the contrary regarding the claim about zip codes: A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education; and Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings.

Devaluing Teachers in the Age of Value-Added

We teach the children of the middle class, the wealthy and the poor,” explains Anthony Cody, continuing:

We teach the damaged and disabled, the whole and the gifted. We teach the immigrants and the dispossessed natives, the transients and even the incarcerated.

In years past we formed unions and professional organizations to get fair pay, so women would get the same pay as men. We got due process so we could not be fired at an administrator’s whim. We got pensions so we could retire after many years of service.

But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more. We cost too much. We expect our hard-won expertise to be recognized with respect and autonomy. We talk back at staff meetings, and object when we are told we must follow mindless scripts, and prepare for tests that have little value to our students.

During the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public schools and the students they serve felt the weight of standards- and test-based accountability—a bureaucratic process that has wasted huge amounts of tax-payers’ money and incalculable time and energy assigning labels, rankings, and blame. The Reagan-era launching of accountability has lulled the U.S. into a sort of complacency that rests on maintaining a gaze on schools, students, and test data so that no one must look at the true source of educational failure: poverty and social inequity, including the lingering corrosive influences of racism, classism, and sexism.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras—resting on intensified commitments to accountability such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)—have continued that misguided gaze and battering, but during the past decade-plus, teachers have been added to the agenda.

As Cody notes above, however, simultaneously political leaders, the media, and the public claim that teachers are the most valuable part of any student’s learning (a factually untrue claim), but that high-poverty and minority students can be taught by those without any degree or experience in education (Teach for America) and that career teachers no longer deserve their profession—no tenure, no professional wages, no autonomy, no voice in what or how they teach.

And while the media and political leaders maintain these contradictory narratives and support these contradictory policies, value-added methods (VAM) of evaluating and compensating U.S. public teachers are being adopted, again simultaneously, as the research base repeatedly reveals that VAM is yet another flawed use of high-stake accountability and testing.

When Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff released (and re-released) reports claiming that teacher quality equates to significant earning power for students, the media and political leaders tripped over themselves to cite (and cite) those reports.

What do we know about the Chetty, et al., assertions?

From 2012:

[T]hose using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings. (Di Carlo)

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.) (Baker)

And now, a thorough review concludes:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

Similar to the findings in Edward H. Haertel’s analysis of VAM, Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), the American Statistical Association has issued ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment, emphasizing:

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling. Combining VAMs across multiple years decreases the standard error of VAM scores. Multiple years of data, however, do not help problems caused when a model systematically undervalues teachers who work in specific contexts or with specific types of students, since that systematic undervaluation would be present in every year of data.

Among DiCarlo, Baker, Haertel and the ASA, several key patterns emerge regarding VAM: (1) VAM remains an experimental statistical model, (2) VAM is unstable and significantly impacted by factors beyond a teacher’s control and beyond the scope of that statistical model to control, and (3) implementing VAM in high-stakes policies exaggerates the flaws of VAM.

The rhetoric about valuing teachers rings hollow more and more as teaching continues to be dismantled and teachers continue to be devalued by misguided commitments to VAM and other efforts to reduce teaching to a service industry.

VAM as reform policy, like NCLB, is sham-science being used to serve a corporate need for cheap and interchangeable labor. VAM, ironically, proves that evidence does not matter in education policy.

Like all workers in the U.S., we simply do not value teachers.

Political leaders, the media, and the public call for more tests for schools, teachers, and students, but they continue to fail themselves to acknowledge the mounting evidence against test-based accountability.

And thus, we don’t need numbers to prove what Cody states directly: “But career teachers are not convenient or necessary any more.”

National Poetry Month: “What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

National Poetry Month 2014 comes not on “little cat feet,” like Carl Sandberg’s “Fog,” but in the wake of Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, responding to reports of the whitewashing of books for children. Walter Dean Myers explains:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Myers identifies James Baldwin as the moment he discovered what was missing, and then Myers asks:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

National Poetry Month 2014 also comes just as we have Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, which includes a beautiful and inspired Introduction by Nikky Finney:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems

As we search for ways in which to insure that students, as Myers did, find what is missing in the texts students are often required to read, I recommend the poetry of Baldwin and Finney. Along with Finney’s full Introduction above, students can access Finney’s Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin, and then their poetry (see Nikky Fnney at Poetry Foundation).

These entry points to poetry can then lead to multi-genre/mode/form considerations, such as The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written—about Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work. Noah Berlatsky’s essay includes two important links as well to another African American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, inspired by Baldwin (see Jose Vilson on Baldwin as well):

Along with seeking texts that have people who look like all our students, we must also consider language. A wonderful bi-lingual poetry unit can be developed from two beautiful and powerful books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Another America and Jorge Luis Borges’s Borges: Selected Poems (see Borges at Poetry Foundation), Kingsolver’s translated from English to Spanish and Borges’s translated from Spanish to English:

Another American

Borges: Selected Poems

Myers ends his essay by confronting how texts represent African Americans and how African American males, specifically, are impacted:

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.

“There is work to be done,” Myers concludes, and National Poetry Month is an ideal time to start, or continue that work.

Additional Reading

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

remnant 20: “your absence will sadden other afternoons”

Assorted thoughts on poetry

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

Reading, Learning, Teaching Barbara Kingsolver