© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

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.

Comments

comments

This was written on Tuesday, 22. February 2011 at 10:13 and was filed under action, Atlanta, Can You Hear Me Now?, church-state separation, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Raising Freethinkers, schools, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Bravo!

    Comment: stbloomfield – 22. February 2011 @ 10:55 am

  2. I can’t express how arresting reading this record was so far. And this is such a wonderful ending (is it?) for such an annoying problem. I wish there would be a shoulder-tapping interface for WordPress, but there is none. What you all did there was huge, Dale.

    I understand from reading this and several other blogs that your situation (regarding the avoidance of conflicts with points of contacts towards religion) in the USA is by times substantially different to the one here in Europe (Germany in my case, where this topic comes up only in extreme cases). Stepping up needs courage, passion and the right mind. You and your family have proven all of them. A true inspiration…

    Greetings to you and especially to your smart daughter. Tell her, that the brilliance of her submission to the Evolution & Art contest was also noticed in Germany. 😉

    Daniel

    Comment: judugrovee – 22. February 2011 @ 11:01 am

  3. I stand in awe of your ability to stay calm and generate such a positive response. I still want to scream at that stupid woman but you are absolutely correct; that won’t generate the change we want to see. My son might be starting public school in Florida next year so we’ll see how well I hold up under the challenges. I can only aspire to be as effective as you are.

    Comment: CyberLizard – 22. February 2011 @ 11:02 am

  4. Stop it! Your story got me all choked-up like a Hallmark commercial.

    Amazing. I still aspire to be as knowledgable, cool and collected as Dale. My hero.

    Comment: gedeyenite – 22. February 2011 @ 11:38 am

  5. Haha Ditto all of the above! I can’t improve on what Daniel, cyberlizard and gedeyenite have already said (and I shared the whole range of feelings they describe!), and I will repeat stbloomfield’s “Bravo!”

    Comment: niftywriter – 22. February 2011 @ 11:43 am

  6. Awesome.

    Comment: limadean – 22. February 2011 @ 12:40 pm

  7. I’m not quite sure I follow this; clearly having the principal on board as an ally is a good thing, but unless you also deal with the individual teacher and “get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why” then what have you actually achieved?

    The principal is a useful means to an end, but you seem to have no end here – unless Ms. Warner understands that she did wrong she’ll continue to think in the same way, and this, or something like it will just happen again.

    Comment: Anonymous – 22. February 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  8. @Anon: She’s not a teacher, but an assistant admin, and is likely to have had a good earful from the principal about this, and so is extremely unlikely to re-offend, even if her own mind is unchanged. The goal is to change the educational culture of the school and district to make Ms. Warners (plural) less common.

    Comment: Dale – 22. February 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  9. Purely awesometastic!

    My fear is that if I’m ever presented with a similar situation with my daughter (who is only 7 weeks old, so we have a little time to learn this), I will not be able to find the resources (read: “evidence”) you had prepared to be compelling in my argument. I fear I would just say something stupid like “but c’mon, I mean, really, c’mon, it’s so obvious, c’mon…” and end up calling everyone a religitard. 🙁

    I am not a good “google-er” on my own… I know I could probably contact someone at the NCSE via email and present them with any problems I may face in the future and hope for a response in time, but is this the best method for layparents to take in arming ourselves with evidence ammo?

    I haven’t finished the PBB book yet, maybe my answer is in there…

    Comment: TomZ – 22. February 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  10. The best starting point is Americans United for Separation of Church and State. A great org and an awe-inspiring, well-organized website. Then yes, go to NCSE if it involves nonsense in the science classroom. In my experience they respond quickly and well.

    And take a moment now to acquaint yourself with your own state’s curricula and standards — or at least to bookmark the site where they are publicly available.

    Comment: Dale – 22. February 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  11. Awesome! Thanks for the info Dale!

    Comment: TomZ – 22. February 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  12. I am so sorry your daughter had to go through this. But I’m so happy that she has parents who are smart enough and strong enough to stand up for her. I grew up in a very rural area where the evolution chapter of my high school biology book was “skipped” by a teacher who muttered something about talking to our parents and pastors if we had any questions on the topic. As a free-thinking adult (and hopefully someday soon a parent) who also lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, it is so helpful to me to see detailed guides like this. I’m sure a day will come when I will have to deal with an educator like this, and I’m very grateful to have this resource to look back on.

    Comment: Half Hearted Hippie – 22. February 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  13. I may have said this before, but… when my daughter is in school and we navigate the shoals of conflict with the world, I hope to be half as reasonable and composed as you manage to be. Thank you for sharing this experience, and especially for the guidelines. Also for your humor. 🙂

    Comment: kathryn – 22. February 2011 @ 7:28 pm

  14. Wow. I can only hope to have the same grace under pressure. I’m afraid if this were to happen to my son, I would go in there on impulse and give the lady a piece of my mind. And none too nicely. It would have made me even more angry the way acted like she had done nothing wrong. Thank you for sharing the experience. You are the perfect example of how we all should handle difficult situations.

    Comment: Cass81 – 22. February 2011 @ 7:42 pm

  15. Unfortunately, Ms. Warner is very likely to reoffend. In fact, episodes like this serve only to steel the resolve of like minded people in these matters. Her excuse was one she knew you would accept, but ultimately dishonest. Her objection was based upon personal beliefs, not “conflict avoidance.” And any censure she might receive will be steadfastly ignored, because she already knows that she is right, and her employers are wrong. She’ll just learn to be more circumspect about it. Like the true emotional child molester she is, she’ll begin warning the children not to tell on her, or “dire consequences” could result.

    This, of course, is simply my cynical personal opinion, based upon no expertise or evidence of any kind.

    Comment: Paul Little – 22. February 2011 @ 9:52 pm

  16. Thanks for sharing. The real lesson here might be to find an ally and have them in the room. I wonder what we are to do if we’re confronted with a similar situation but no real ally. How would this have been different if the principle was also a conflict avoider?

    In my highschool days, I wanted to take another male friend to the senior prom because we always hung out together, and having him as my date was the only way to get a junior into the senior prom. The principle denied us, saying we couldn’t go as a same-sex couple. He only accepted because my father had intervened and implied a lawsuit. But the principle never admitted his error, and was likely to repeat it in one form or another. (I.E. in this case conflict avoidance worked in our favor, but was not a real win.)

    Comment: anerbenartzi – 22. February 2011 @ 10:59 pm

  17. Great work, Dale and Becca!
    I think given all the circumstances, you achieved the best possible outcome, both for your daughter and for the school.

    Comment: Brad – 22. February 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  18. @anerbenartzi: If the principal is not an ally, I recommend moving up the chain by single steps. In our case that would have been what is called an area superintendent. If she was not responsive, the district superintendent is next. In my experience, you will by then have encountered someone whose role as a professional educator trumps his or her personal POV.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2011 @ 6:04 am

  19. I’m inclined to agree with Paul at #15; I still don’t quite follow the logic here. From the previous instalments it seems the sequence of events is:

    – Contest win (Yay)
    – Her teacher “showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office” (Good)
    – The front office responds by organising an interview on school TV (Good)
    – Ms Warner tries to screw things up (Bad)
    – You talk to the principal, who agrees with you (Good)
    – Ms Warner tries to screw things up again, waiting until the principal is out of earshot to do so (Very Bad)
    – You talk to Ms Warner, who doesn’t acknowledge any wrong-doing (Still bad), and the principal who is not just on-side, but enthusiastically so (Still good).

    I don’t see, after that, how “The goal is to change the educational culture of the school and district” – with the exception of Ms Warner (twice!) you don’t seem to have had anything less than full support from the school.

    The problem in need of dealing with here seems to be entirely Ms Warner, and while you can assume that she’s been given a suitable dressing-down by the principal, you don’t know for sure, and she clearly didn’t get the message after your first meeting with the principal (or chose to ignore it). Either way, I’m not sure there’s grounds for being so sanguine about her likelihood or re-offending.

    Comment: Anonymous – 23. February 2011 @ 9:48 am

  20. Was just thinking about the comments above of Paul Little.
    FWIW, I think he’s absolutely correct about the likely future behavior of Ms. Warner, not to mention the legions of school personnel who have similar religious convictions and the fears and ignorance that follow from them. The ongoing ID movement/nuisance is testimony to that, is it not?
    So it’s a “blessing” (pardon me) that we have parents like the McGowans and others similarly smart, courageous, and principled.

    I’m uncomfortable, however, with one implication of Mr. Little’s post, with regard to his use of the term “molester.” It seems to me that that word implies a bad or evil intent as well as an evil action. It is certainly possible that Ms. Warner is a sick, purposeful, molester of the minds of children, and in any event her actions in this case were intolerable.
    But probably she’s just an average devout believer. Consider most Christians. Their intent is not evil. Instead, they genuinely believe, deeply if pathologically, that they’re doing right by children, indeed, “saving” them. In this regard, the Ms. Warners of the world share a commonality with, for but one even more horrific example, the women who mutilate the genitals of their own daughters, thinking it’s “for their own good.” Most of those women are not fundamentally evil, just grotesquely misinformed, not to mention similarly mistreated themselves. Accordingly, they genuinely do not see their own viciousness, or in the case of Christians like Ms. Warner, that they’ve simply engaged in dishonest and underhanded manipulation. (And then there are the millions who teach their children that an invisible deity knows their every thought, but don’t get me started.)

    Comment: Brad – 23. February 2011 @ 10:06 am

  21. @Anon: A perfectly valid position. But I assure you the problem is not entirely with Ms. Warner. There are countless Warners in any given school and district. My point is that time spent banging our heads against a single perp is far better spent creating an environment in which these actions are less likely to succeed. This includes both heightened scrutiny from above and increased education throughout the system. You may disagree, and I would welcome your reports of success in a perp-focused approach. Until then, onward!

    @Brad: A nice bit of nuance there. One of the things that serves us least well is assuming the subhuman worst in those who disagree with us.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2011 @ 10:12 am

  22. Paul and Anonymous…You haven’t offered any concrete suggestions about how we’re supposed to force Warner to see the error of her ways…probably because there aren’t any. MUCH better to fix the system that allows these things than spinning our wheels over one person, I think.

    Comment: thoughtful1 – 23. February 2011 @ 10:32 am

  23. “You haven’t offered any concrete suggestions about how we’re supposed to force Warner to see the error of her ways…probably because there aren’t any.”

    True enough, but the point isn’t necessarily to make her accept that she’s wrong, it’s to make her not do it again, and I’m not sure this will do that – clearly the first gentle meeting with the principal didn’t put her off, so why would we think the second would?

    As for what I’d have done differently; I honestly don’t know, but I think I might have tried more or less this path, but then once it was clear that the principal was not the problem, I’d have asked him what concrete action he was going to take to deal with Ms Warner. It’s all very well talking in general terms about “creating an environment in which these actions are less likely to succeed”, but at some point that environment has to be one that actually does something to stop people feeling as if they can behave in the way Ms Warner did.

    It still sounds to me as though the policy and management were already on the side of right, so there’s no need for change there. If the problem is individual people like Ms Warner (even if there’s lots of them), then they need to know that this behaviour has consequences – if it doesn’t, there’s no disincentive to try to go against the policy next time round. And so far, we don’t know that there were any adverse consequences for Ms Warner at all, and if there weren’t, I don’t see what’s actually changed for the better.

    I do hope, by the way. that this isn’t coming across as too negative; it’s easy to polarise online discussions, and this isn’t a matter of “You suck!”, it’s a lot more “Hmm, that’s interesting and worth talking about.”

    Comment: Anonymous – 23. February 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  24. @Anon: That’s a fine point. I’m operating in part from past knowledge I haven’t fully spelled out here, including the fact that school admins in most cases are legally barred from discussing disciplinary actions against employees with third parties. I can insist on whatever I want, but I will usually not know whether something has been carried out. I have known many principals, and since this one has impressed me several times with his professionalism, it would be pretty odd if this did not bite her in the next performance review.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2011 @ 1:06 pm

  25. She, and those like her, want to “avoid conflict” so I guess the important thing is not to let her.

    They need to know that they’ll get conflict, and that “I’m sorry you didnt like me screwig over you daughter” isnt an apology.

    I’m impressed by how well you handled this!

    Comment: gordongoblin – 24. February 2011 @ 6:31 am

  26. That’s inspiring. Almost brought me to tears. You handled that entire situation beautifully, I surely would have lost my temper.

    Comment: Frank – 24. February 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  27. I wonder, if she is panting this as a misunderstanding, what reason she can give (even to herself) for waiting until the Principal was out of the room.

    To me that says premeditation, and acknowledges that what she was about to do was explicitly sabotage.

    Comment: gordongoblin – 25. February 2011 @ 6:14 am

  28. Wow, what a story! Great job handling a difficult situation!

    Comment: jfinite – 25. February 2011 @ 11:37 am

  29. Ausgezeichnet!

    Very well played — and very well written! You have a new fan for this blog, and I hope that I can bring you more.

    ~Wordplayer

    Comment: Wordplayer – 26. February 2011 @ 11:42 pm

  30. @Brad: Do you think an actual child molester believes they are evil? Sure, they know what they are doing is looked upon as wrong by others, and they know they will get in trouble if they are caught, but I don’t think they believe that they, themselves are actually evil. Ms. Warner is coming from a similar position. She knows what she is doing is against the rules. In fact, she probably knows it is against the law. Still, she doesn’t believe it’s wrong. And make no mistake – by the exact description of Delaney’s response to her, as described by Dale, what she was doing constituted emotional abuse.

    Comment: Paul Little – 02. March 2011 @ 9:09 pm

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