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The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

It’s a pickle — can you help us out?

Foundation Beyond Belief, the non-profit humanist charitable organization I am proud to run, has had a frankly amazing year.

Our members contributed over $24,000 for tsunami and famine relief, helped build a library in Ghana and a humanist school in Uganda, and helped alleviate hunger and improve access to health care in India, Ecuador, Tanzania, and the U.S. We’ve pioneered a unique experiment in cooperation between worldviews and launched a humanist volunteer corps in 12 U.S. cities. We expect to exceed 1000 members by the end of December and a quarter million dollars in total donations by March.

But we’re running into a bit of a pickle. Unlike most non-profits, we spend each year encouraging our supporters to give to other charities. Then, in the final weeks of the year, we ask them to give more, to the Foundation itself…and sometimes, the well is understandably dry.

See the pickle?

To make matters worse, two of our major funders have now closed their grant programs. (Yikes.) We have ideas for replacing that income in the long run, but in the short run, we could really use your help.

We don’t eat much. In fact, we’ve been so careful about admin costs that we spent less on operations in 2011 than we did in 2010. That’s pretty good, considering we also added Volunteers Beyond Belief and Humanist Crisis Response this year.

Because our members have given and given all year long, we’re bringing this drive outside of the circle to people who support what we’re doing but are not necessarily part of the Foundation. If you can see your way clear to send a few bob our way, we’d be grateful for it.

Whether or not you can do that, we’ve made it especially easy this year to share the drive through your social media by sharing a link or creating a widget or a fundraising page of your own. It’s all very easy and quick.

So if you can help us end the year strong, please…click the pickle!

An unreliable Witness (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 first.)

Previously on The Meming of Life: I expressed concern to a Jehovah’s Witness over my (allegedly) disobedient son. She confirmed that the Bible is completely reliable and accurate, and that its advice applies even today. We now return to our story, already in progress.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I said. “You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Her reaction was immediate — a loud nervous laugh. “HAHA! Well we don’t want you to do THAT!”

I blinked. “But Jesus does.” I flipped open to Matthew 5:17 and pointed.

“I…I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know what translation you’re using there.” She pulled out her own bible — most likely the New World Translation, a JW version published in the 1950s — and flipped to Matthew. “And I see yours is in red letters,” she said. “I’m not sure what that indicates…”

“The words of Christ.”

“Oh, okay.” She scanned her own Mt 5:17. “Okay, yes, it’s basically the same. But it’s important to read the Deuteronomy verse in context. It is not suggesting that you can kill your son.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t say I can. I says I shall. I don’t see that I have a choice. In fact, in Mark 7:9 *flip flip flip* Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their children as the Old Law commands. What context are you talking about?”

“You can’t just look at the words and say, okay, I’m done, I’ll do that. God was speaking to Ancient Israel. Our time is not the same.”

“I see. So you can’t read the Bible exactly as it is, you have to interpret it.”

“Yes. Well no! It’s a matter of context, not interpretation.”

“And in the context of Ancient Israel, it was moral to kill your disobedient child.”

“Yes. But not today.”

“So God’s moral law has changed.”

The eyes of the moon-faced boy were becoming enormous white craters. Voldemort was apparently toweling off. The smile was unchanged.

“No. God’s law is eternal. Only man’s law changes.”

“And Deuteronomy is whose word again?”

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, if one of us is struggling, I don’t think it’s me.” I dropped my pretense. “Look — I’m not planning to kill my son. It’s immoral now, and it was immoral in ancient Judea. The Sixth Commandment covers that. There’s no ‘context’ that makes it okay to kill a disobedient child. It’s also a bit of a problem to say that a book including such a clear instruction is to be followed to the letter.”

She paused. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Let me just say this. When I discovered the Bible many years ago, when I learned that this is the Truth” — she pressed her hand into the cover with soft intensity — “it made such a difference in my life. It helped me, and it can help you. We cannot possibly know what is right without it.”

I shook my head. “What you just said is not true. You’ve just shown that you are better than that.” I held the Bible up. “There’s a lot of really good stuff in here, but there is also a lot of absolutely wretched, immoral stuff. And you recognized that it was wrong to kill my son, despite what the Bible said. You used your own moral reasoning to sort that out. That’s a really good thing. It’s what we should all do.”

No reply.

“If you had come to my house two weeks ago and handed me a letter that simply told me to kill my son, I would have been justified in calling the police. Of course you would never do that. But you essentially gave me that same letter with a lot of other pages around it, and told me it was the perfect word of God.”

It was obvious that she had never had an experience like this. Though the boy was hard to read (or even to look at directly at this point), the Talker was clearly intelligent and seemed intrigued. We talked for another ten minutes at least. She asked if I wasn’t astonished by the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Gospels. I asked if she was astonished by the perfect fulfillment of predictions from the first Harry Potter book in the seventh Harry Potter book. The gospel writers had the OT in their laps and shaped their retelling of the life of Christ to fulfill those prophecies — a common practice in Mediterranean religious literature. We talked about midrash and syncretism, which she had never heard of. I told her about the Jesus Seminar, which she had also never heard of.

“Do you believe in God at all?” she asked at last. I do not, I said, but I’ve always been fascinated by ultimate questions. The people I don’t understand are the ones who are indifferent to those questions. She agreed.

“Well,” she said, “I guess we can leave it there.” I apologized for keeping her so long, and she said, “My no. I’m the one who wanted to stay. This has been so interesting.” We shook hands, and off they went. I’d like to think they’ll remember it, and that it will nicely complicate their task from now on.

That night I told the story at dinner. While Connor (who is not, by the way, a difficult child) and I were clearing the table (see?), he said, “I can’t believe what you did to those people.”

Uh oh. Yeah, I wondered about that. Remember the cross necklace story a few weeks ago? Connor is a classic apatheist, and the collision of religious ideas makes him uncomfortable.

“Con, don’t worry, I was very gentle about it.”

“No no, that’s not what I mean. I mean…it was awesome how you did that. I can’t believe it.”

Well that did it. Now the stoning is off for sure.

An unreliable Witness

I don’t often fence with doorknocking evangelists. They always (always) interrupt me in the middle of a much more interesting thought that I’m eager to get back to, and the more I engage, the more my brain is distracted for the rest of the day by all the witty things I should have said.

I also don’t like to embarrass people, even when they’ve come to my door asking me to please do so. In most cases, these are decent, harmless folks trying to do what they think is right, however misguided, and influencing few others. Many former doorknockers confirm that the practice is mostly about making yourself feel good about “carrying out the Great Commission,” and that slammed doors are taken as evidence of your own Christ-like conviction in a fallen world. “Each slammed door helps us come closer to our Savior,” wrote one Mormon missionary.

I don’t want to be part of someone else’s martyr complex, but it’s hard to avoid getting testy when somebody knocks on my door and says something deeply silly, then asks for my thoughts. Still, I usually manage to thank them for their time and suddenly remember that soufflé.

But earlier this month, something quietly snapped as I listened to two Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door. Actually, I only listened to one — there’s always a Talker and what I guess you’d call…a witness. The Talker had started by reading me a weirdly mundane verse from Psalms, then asked for my reaction. What follows is as close to verbatim as I can recall.

“To that? No particular reaction.”

She nodded, handed me a booklet titled WHAT DOES THE BIBLE Really TEACH?, and asked if she could come back to discuss it with me later in the month.

Well sure, I said.

Last week, she bested Jesus by coming back when she said she would. I was ready with a new twist on a very old approach.

“So…Dale, was it? Hi Dale. Did you have a chance to look at the booklet I left last time?”

“Oh yes!” I said with a bit too much enthusiasm. “I did. It was very interesting.”

She seemed pleased. “What was interesting to you?”

“Well it’s just full of answers, and it has these, these footnotes that point to places in the Bible. Did you know that?”

She did!

“So I started looking through the Bible because…” I paused for effect and lowered my voice. “Well, my family is having some difficulties, and we could really use some answers right now.”

The quiet one was different this time, a strange, moon-faced boy, about sixteen, with that mixed expression that always unsettles me. The mouth smiles, but the eyes seem to be looking at Voldemort in the shower.

“What kind of difficulties?” asked the Talker.

“It’s my son,” I said. “He’s sixteen. He’s stubborn and rebellious. When we discipline him, it just doesn’t seem to make a difference.” I looked up cautiously, expecting a change of expression as she figured out where I was going. Nothing. “And as I was looking for answers in the Bible, boom! There it was!”

“That’s how it is sometimes!” she said, eyes sparkling. “Boom!”

“Yes, boom! And I knew I could trust the advice, because the booklet you gave me said the entire Bible is ‘harmonious and accurate,’ with no contradictions. All the inspired word of God.”

“It is indeed.”

“That’s important to know, because the answer I found is in the Old Testament. I have this friend who said the Old Testament doesn’t count any more. He said the New Covenant of Jesus Christ replaced the Old Law.”

She shook her head. “Your friend is making a very common mistake,” she said. “He is interpreting the word of Jehovah God. You have to read the Bible exactly as it is, NOT interpret it. Otherwise there’s your interpretation, there’s my interpretation, and somebody else’s.”

“Right, we can’t have that,” I said. My porch was suddenly a barrel stocked with two fish, both of them dressed for a funeral for some reason. “So I went back to my Bible after I talked to this friend…and it fell right open to Matthew 5:17.”

I waited, nodding expectantly.

She smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not…too familiar with that passage.”

“Matthew 5:17, really?” I said, with honest surprise. “Right between the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer?” She smiled weakly. This was disappointing. If nothing else, JWs are usually scripturally literate. And this is not some passage tucked away in the Bible’s sock drawer — it’s from the Sermon on the Mount.

I closed my eyes and began: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Law or the Prophets…this is Jesus speaking…I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen shall by any means disappear from the Old Law until everything is accomplished. Now I looked up ‘Old Law,’” I said, “and it means the first five books of the Old Testament.” I gestured around. “I don’t know about heaven, but Earth hasn’t passed away yet. So Jesus said the Old Testament is still relevant today.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “Every word is of Jehovah God.”

“And Jesus said, Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to be the least in heaven, and I’m sure you wouldn’t teach me anything that would make you the least in heaven, right?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that. You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

On to Part 2

20 Reasons to support FBB in July

Humanists like to have good reasons for what they do. It’s one of the most adorable things about us. That’s why Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable membership organization, is building its member/donor drive around 20 Reasons to Give or Join in July.

Maybe you’ll join or give because without a God, it’s up to us to make things better on this planet, or because we don’t keep a dime of your donations to the featured charities, or because our regular giving model appeals to you.

Maybe you’ll do it for the yummy dopamine hit or the pretty decent chance to win an iPad2.

There’s also the opportunity to confuse Arthur Brooks, who says the secular suffer from a “virtue gap,” or to make Dinesh D’Souza look even sillier.

Then there’s our new Volunteers Beyond Belief program to support, Andrew Jackson’s hair to celebrate, and fear, arguably the greatest cause of human misery, to overcome.

Start at our 20 Reasons page, select your own favorite reason, and share it on Facebook and beyond.

For the videogenic among us, there’s the 20 Reasons Video Contest. Make a short video (<60 seconds) about your reason for being a member or supporter of Foundation Beyond Belief -- funny, serious, animated, whatever — then upload it to YouTube as a response to this one by FBB board member Zach Moore. Share it, ask your friends to Like it, and we’ll do the same by posting it on all of our social media pages. The two videos with the most Likes at the end of July will each receive a $50 Amazon gift certificate.

It comes down to this: We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far, putting compassionate humanism to work by raising over $160,000 for outstanding charities worldwide, and we’re excited about what’s next. Our Volunteers Beyond Belief program launched today, with chapters in eight U.S. cities, and our ongoing humanist emergency response program will launch on August 1. We’re working hard to build a positive, effective expression of compassionate humanism. We need your help to keep it moving forward by donating, joining, or just spreading the word.

Thanks for doing whatever you can to make our July drive a success.

Help save a good district from itself

My kids are having a great public school experience. We’re in a very strong district, and our three immediate schools are highly ranked and award-winning, with brilliant, professional teachers and administrators.

Though bad things do happen, the bad is hugely outweighed by the good. And when things do go south, a thoughtful approach usually gets a good result.

But now I’m dealing with a spot of unpleasantness at the top — the school board.

In seven days, the Fulton County (GA) School Board will vote on a proposal to rescind the district’s excellent and clear church/state separation policy and procedure, as well as the equally good Teaching of Religion policy (for full text, click the links). Not revise, not replace, but erase entirely.

I contacted my board member to ask what the reasoning was. “These items are covered by state law,” she said, “and therefore redundant. Hope that helps.”

It didn’t.

Countless district policies mirror state law. I’ll bet the policies stating that “students may not threaten to plant a bomb” and “may not knowingly make false calls to emergency services” are at least hinted at somewhere in the law.

Teachers and principals run into church-state issues all the time. When they need guidance in this complicated area, teachers and admins turn not to state law but to district policy. My wife Becca, a schoolteacher, assures me that she wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to look for the law. I gave up myself after 30 minutes online. And I practically Google for a living.

I thanked the board member for her reply and asked if she might point me to the state law in question. No reply after 17 days. Apparently she has no idea where to look, either.

Though it might cover the same general territory, state law is unlikely to include the helpful details present in those policies: the difference between devotional and non-devotional religious symbols in class projects, for example, whether a religious song can be included in a school concert, whether prayers or religious references are permissible at school-sponsored events and in what context. Good and helpful stuff.

This issue should worry religious parents every bit as much as the nonreligious. In the absence of clear guidelines, most teachers and principals overcompensate, disallowing even permissible religious expressions and activity. The result for many districts has been expensive free exercise lawsuits by religious parents whose children have been inappropriately muzzled. Lose clarity and accessibility and everyone loses.

It would be easy to ring the theocracy alarm here, but despite appearances, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. It’s more banal. For one thing, several unrelated policies are also on the chopping block in what looks to be a periodic barn cleaning. And although some district or state boards are packed with zealots or fools, ours seems to consist of decent people whose occasional cluelessness has more to do with the amount on their plates than any dark intentions. But whether it’s cluelessness or malice, the result is potentially the same. I can’t stand by and watch them casually sweep away policies that many other districts — including some recently or currently embroiled in church/state lawsuits — would die for.

I wrote to another board member who gave the same state-law answer. I gave my arguments for retaining the policies and asked what I could do to prevent the rescission. Again, no reply. So after consulting with the Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I’m going over the school board’s heads, to the public. (Psst…that’s you.)

The vote on rescission is scheduled for June 14. Here’s what you can do to help:

If you are a resident of Fulton County, Georgia and agree that these policies and procedure should remain in place, find out who your board member is and write a concise, reasonable but firm email expressing your strong conviction that these two policies and one procedure should stay right where they are. If you have kids in school, name the school.

If you are not a resident of Fulton County GA, please share this post. You just might have a friend or two who is.

If you are in a district that has been embroiled in church/state messes, you might drop a note to tell my district how helpful clear policy can be. It means less head-butting, fewer lawsuits, and fewer distractions from the education of our kids.

Thanks in advance for whatever you can do.

Links to the three items
Teaching of Religion Policy
Separation of Church and State Policy
Separation of Church and State Procedure

Fulton County School Board email addresses (Please be civil so our tone doesn’t become the issue.)

Amazon.com(ments)

(I posted this last week, then realized I hadn’t asked my correspondent below for permission to quote her email, something I generally try to do. She gave the thumbs-up, so here it is. Thanks Jan, you’re a good sport!)

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. But when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted.

Really.

A few weeks ago I got a note that appalled me more than a one-star review ever could:

Mr. McGowan,
I’m wondering if you watch the Amazon.com pages for your books. About two years ago I almost bought Parenting Beyond Belief but was convinced not to after I read the top comment, which said it was a book for angry athiests [sic]. I didn’t want anything like that. My son had serious trouble when his grandmother died last year, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Finally I broke down and got the book last month. And it was terrific! But I really needed it two years ago! Can’t you erase that terrible review so people aren’t misinformed??

I suddenly felt really, really tired.

I replied, explaining that I have no power to delete Amazon reviews, and (short of something clearly libelous) wouldn’t want it. I sketched out the timeless principle of caveat lector, stopping short of advising that she stay clear of the wilds of cyberspace unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The xkcd cartoon above immediately came to mind.

I do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down, or even comment on, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun. You don’t need me.

In fact, I feel another Latin phrase coming on. Vox populi!

Kudos to the good

rockfingersErin (13) came home from school a few weeks ago and sat in front of me with evident drama.

“Guess what.”

“Norway fell into the sea. You can burp the alphabet. Am I close?”

“Dad, stop.” She leaned forward. “We started evolution in science today.”

A tickle of dread went down my spine. I’m a busy boy. No jonesing for another fracas.

“And?”

“And it’s awesome. He’s teaching all about it, just like you would. He explained what theory really means, and said that the evidence is incredibly strong for evolution, and when kids started saying, ‘But the Bible says blah blah blah,’ he just put his hand up and said, ‘You can talk about that with your minister. In this class we are learning about science, about what we know.”

I have never, ever seen her so jazzed about a class experience. She knows what a crapshoot it is, knows that she has less than a 50-50 chance of learning about evolution in any depth in the classroom. She lucked out.

So what’s a parent to do? Most, including me, will do a nice cartoon wipe of the brow and go back to the next thing on the plate. That’s a major mistake. It’s also simply wrong.

We’re happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the Mr. Taylors and Ms. Warners, the educators who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But we’ve got to get just as good and consistent at complimenting the good as we are at complaining about the bad.

It’s not just a question of good manners. If we really care about quality in the classroom, it’s a practical imperative.

Imagine you’re a biology teacher. The evolution unit is approaching, again, and you know for certain you will get a half dozen scolding emails from angry parents the moment the word crosses your lips. Again. If you’ve never received a note of thanks for tackling the topic honestly, it’s easy to feel isolated and beleaguered. Who could blame you for gradually de-emphasizing the topic until it disappears completely? Even a teacher with the best of intentions can be worn to a nub from years of self-righteous tirades.

And those of us who sit silently, never lifting a finger to reinforce good teaching when we see it, deserve what we get.

I finally woke up to this about two years ago and started making a point of shooting off a message of thanks to teachers who rocked my kids’ worlds. This is especially important for middle and high school teachers, who are much less likely to hear any positive feedback through parent conferences and the other frequent contacts elementary teachers get.

When Erin was working her way through a much better-than-average comparative religion unit in social studies, I dashed off a note of appreciation to the teacher, who nearly passed out from the shock. When Connor told me his high school science teacher spent some time explaining what “theory” means in science, I shot him some kudos. And when Erin came home with this story of courage and integrity, I sent a message expressing my deep and detailed appreciation…and cc’ed the principal.

The teacher replied, telling me how gratifying it was to hear the support. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said. Even passion can be pummeled out of someone. But now, the next time he approaches that unit, he’ll hear not only angry shouts ringing in his ears, but a little bit of encouragement from someone who took the time to make it known.

I’m better at this than I once was, but I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed. Gotta work on that. How about you? Anybody you need to thank RIGHT NOW?

Humanism at work in Japan

On the day Japan was devastated by an 8.9 earthquake and massive tsunami, Foundation Beyond Belief, the humanist charitable foundation I direct, launched a fund drive for the relief effort.

We were tempted to name a relief organization as recipient on that day, but we waited. No two natural disasters are alike. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile presented dramatically different challenges for relief organizations, and the current situation had its own unique character and needs.

It’s a good thing we waited. After a few days it became clear that most international relief organizations would be only marginally involved in the response. Through long, painful experience, Japan has become the best-prepared nation on Earth for natural disasters. Even so, the sheer scale of the task at hand will require an immense amount of effort and financial resources.

JRCSworkerAs donations poured in from our members and supporters, we monitored the situation to determine how best to direct the funds. Yesterday it became clear that our support would do the most good not in international hands, but by direct contribution to the domestic Japanese agency at the center of this massive effort.

Foundation Beyond Belief will forward 100 percent of collected funds to the Japanese Red Cross.

The Japanese Red Cross operates 92 hospitals nationwide and forms the backbone of domestic disaster response in Japan. By donating directly to JRCS, we can be confident that our funds are going where they are needed most for the long recovery ahead. And as of Wednesday March 16, Foundation Beyond Belief members and supporters have donated over $12,000 to the relief fund.

To make a donation to the Japanese Red Cross through Foundation Beyond Belief, visit our homepage and click on the orange ChipIn button in the sidebar.

Deepest thanks to all of you who have donated so generously.

The incredible shrinking woman

[Continued from Part 2, "The Empire Strikes Back"]

The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going as well. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful — helps me feel less like a lone loon.

After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I’ve worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict:

1. Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the first three of our objectives (abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter). But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the last two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.

2. Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.

3. Don’t let your tone become an issue. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.

4. Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage.

5. Position yourself as a resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze, now and in the future.

becca3The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”

The four principal characteristics:

Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then there’s this further down — hard to beat for spot-on relevance:

Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.

I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.

warner1skinner1Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way, I would certainly not have said what I said.” It was all about a wacky breakdown in communication. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do. Cue laugh track.

I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.

“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”

She nodded and shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.

To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I produced a summary of that deeply depressing Penn State study showing that conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”

“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.

warner2skinner2It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.

Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.

I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:

Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:

“[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”

The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]

Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.

Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.

There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”

Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:

It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.

Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.

The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.

“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”

warner3skinner3Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.

“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”

Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”

He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”

Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)

“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”

That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.

That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”

In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. We’re working our way toward two conversations, one large and one small. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, it looks like some lasting good could come out of this.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go.

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”

Hmm.

I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.’”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Dad?”

“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
eaglenews2
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)