Sunday, July 9, 2023

Bumpers, First Amendment Rights, and School District Culture

To Waukesha School Board members Mark Borowski, Bette Koenig, Karrie Kozlowski, Patrick McCaffery, Marquell Moorer, Kelly Piacsek, Diane Voit, David Wadd, and Anthony Zenobia

CC: Superintendent James Sebert and Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Gennerman

RE: Support for Melissa Tempel, First Amendment Rights, and Overall District Culture Review

I have been a parent in the district for 13 years and have worked in the district for several as well. My youngest will be a senior at South, where he chose to go after his experience in the STEM program. I am very impressed by what I've seen over the last three years and am glad he made that decision. His counselor Mr. Darling has been amazing and my son has come home several times with interesting things to talk about from some of his classes, including Dr. Freshwater’s.

The recent open resignation letters from South teachers including Dr. Freshwater, coupled with what I have seen as both a parent and employee through the years, tell an uncomfortable story that shouldn’t be.

Teachers are not robots- they are people.

Perceptions of and regulations for the promotion of robotic behaviors are both individually and communally destructive.

To me, laws and rules act as bumpers: they seek to help us all stay on a roadway heading toward a common goal. I believe the common goal in a school is to create well-adjusted children who learn facts and skills to become constructive members of society, capable of working within that society. All those individuals out there.

Cooks. Welders. Parents. Butchers. Pastors. Computer programmers. Nurses. Small business owners. Soccer players. Singers. YouTubers.

While a public school district is a public entity, it’s also a workplace. I believe anyone would agree with me that a healthy workplace, one that people stick with and work hard within, is one that makes them feel valued and appreciated.

The bumpers within a school district need to support EVERYONE involved. I have developed a deep hatred for the mantra of “Do it for the kids” due to my discovery that many teachers here and across the country have absorbed that phrase in such a way that its actual meaning is “Keep your head down and just sacrifice yourself- physically and mentally”. They feel they must stand stoically and say nothing to anyone about anything. I personally know some who even refused to speak out about a principal because they feared losing their jobs. That person ended up not able to complete their first year in the school, but not before a contract extension was given.

My guess is that the entire situation ended up being both a financially and mentally expensive one. One that could have ended differently had there not been a lot of fear.

I feel the need to mention another phrase that angers me. The phrase “Right to work state”. The original meaning was that employees didn’t HAVE to join workplace unions. Today, for many people it means “You don’t like the rules and requirements in place? Leave. We’ll find someone who will do it. No discussion.”. I see many connections between these two phrases and the situation we find ourselves in within the district today.

My point? Yes, we need bumpers within the district to make sure an employee is not spouting off about or promoting something truly destructive and there’s no way to stop them. But we also need to have trust in each other. We need ways to help someone after they hit a bumper so they can keep going down the road with us. Rainbowland was never going to be truly destructive.

This teacher should not lose her job over this. In fact, it was an opportunity to grow.

Yes, we need rules. But rules sometimes need to be adjusted to reflect the road we really want to be on, too. The future we really want. Trying to make professional people into robots isn’t my idea of a great future. In fact, I question who was responsible for the robot design?

I believe the overall district culture and rules need to be sat down with. Let’s go back to our common goal. I believe it’s to create well-adjusted children who learn facts and skills to become constructive members of society, capable of working within that society.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

On the Subject of Education

 This week, our public school board posted on their website the "resolution to affirm" they approved in January with this as the final (of six) statements:

"No student shall be compelled to affirm, through speech, writing or action, an opinion that violates their deeply held personal, religious or moral beliefs."

It's in a resolution officially titled as being supportive of "parent rights" and "transparency".

I know why this whole resolution was even proposed let alone voted on and passed. It's based on templates designed by and promoted by groups who identify themselves as "conservative" in an attempt to “save” something. They picture specific topics they wish to not see promoted because they feel that would negatively impact their histories and beliefs.

As I outlined in a response to Sen. Kapenga's recent newsletter about a survey conducted by the UW System on First Amendment Rights, I'm concerned about the application of words like "opinion" and "beliefs" within the education system. This applies to all minds. Opinion and belief are not necessarily, at the very root, true. And our understanding of what is true grows the more we explore.

I do believe this resolution substantiates my assertion to both boys during the years that they do NOT have to recite at school the current Pledge of Allegiance that includes the phrase "Under God" instead of “indivisible” as it was originally written because it goes against my beliefs. My kids' beliefs at early ages are, as 99% of all kids' are, influenced and directed by my own. That’s the beginning of early childhood development.

Brennan is still under 18 and still within the district. If he decided to say the modern pledge or write an assigned argumentative essay in support of his opinion that God created the world in 6 24-hour periods of time and that each species we see was created as-is, I will question his logic. I will ask if he truly believes these things and why. 

Will I get upset? Probably. Will I blame the sources he cites? No, but I will examine them and provide contradictory ones with as accurate & true supporting data as I can find. Would I email the teacher to ask questions to see why he’s writing this? Probably. That, calling, and meeting with teachers has ALWAYS been available. It didn't need a resolution promoting "transparency".

Will I seek to get myself elected to the board to get a resolution passed that I believe supports my opinions/side but could be used in other directions that I hadn't intended and actually wasn't needed in the first place? Probably not.

Public education is supposed to build an understanding of the realities of this world. I can go into it with loads of opinions, but studying and experiencing different realities will mold those opinions. Hopefully, for my overall growth and benefit. There have been many examples over time that this hasn’t been the case- either because of a single individual or a more systemic one.

However faulty and deeply affected by the society from which it springs may be, public education's goal has always been to help set children up with the tools they will need to live the long-sought goal of "a good life". What does that mean and are we providing that to all of our public? All of our children? 

Just like the evolution of the realities behind our founding documents, the methodologies and details have changed over time. Thankfully. "We the People" means something completely different today than it did when it was written. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" also means something vastly different today than it did when it was written. 

We and everything else in this world are both deliciously diverse and intrinsically connected. Every day we're alive should be an opportunity to explore those truths and reach deeper understandings. 

That’s real education.

Monday, March 6, 2023

A Response to Sen. Kapenga on the UW System

The following is the headline from the newsletter my Wisconsin State Senator Chris Kapenga sent to constituents on March 3, 2023.

“Survey Finds UW-System Students Afraid to Express Views on Campus”

He goes on to explain that the ones who are afraid are those with “conservative” political views, stating “Though disheartening, the results revealed what many of us have known for a long time. College campuses have become “safe spaces” for liberal thought and quite the opposite for conservative leaning students and faculty.”

I went through the 97-page report, and it definitely is interesting. There were very detailed questions about how the student feels about topics (both in classrooms and beyond), if they have opposed a class-focused idea of a topic, and what happened. I fail to agree with Sen. Kapenga’s analysis. For example, on page 18 of the report, in regards to how likely a student would be to “consider viewpoints they disagree with”, the findings were “Across the various topics [bridges and roads, religion, police misconduct, racial inequality, climate change, Covid 19 vaccines, immigration, gun control, sexual assault, transgender issues, and abortion], only about 1 in 10 students reported that they would be extremely likely to consider viewpoints they disagreed with.” So, regardless of where the student was on the spectrum of support for a topic, it seems less than 10% of ALL would “consider” an opposing viewpoint.

I’d like to focus on the survey’s focus of the term “viewpoint”. Viewpoint is opinion- it’s not fact. If it’s my belief- my viewpoint- my opinion- that Catholicism is the “best” religion, I would naturally tend to NOT “consider” my classmate’s belief, viewpoint, and opinion that being an atheist is the “best” religion.

The survey doesn’t seem to address directly what “conservative” and “liberal” mean to those involved. It did indicate that the only campus with more “conservative” students than “liberal” was the UW-Platteview campus. Overall, there are more “liberal” thinkers than “conservative” ones in our state college system. Whatever that truly means.

I’m using a lot of quotation marks because I think this entire survey has issues relating to word choice. What exactly do they mean by “consider”? To debate? To possibly think about agreeing with?

Sen. Kapenga asserts that “conservative” political voices are afraid to speak out on UW campuses. The report states on page 20 that “Some groups of students feel relatively more or less comfortable expressing their views.” and breaks down the comfort levels of a variety of groups for each topic covered.

Some. Relatively more or less comfortable.

The topics covered in the survey have both overall life and political layers of meaning- we cannot examine them without that understanding. We also cannot ignore the fact that the survey is asking about BELIEF. It’s my understanding that collegiate education is a time to stretch one’s understanding of the world and what we believe it to be all about. As a first-year med student, I may believe that the human species is at the apex of all of life and beholden to none due to an inherent superiority of some sort. After studying microbiology, parasitology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry, I may realize that while we are amazingly complex, we both need a host of other organisms for our survival and there are some organisms or things that can take us down with little effort. At a personal level, I may have to struggle with any inner religious connotations of that understanding I might have, but that is outside the purview of the collegiate structure.

I question at what level many of the topics of concern would even come up in many majors of study. Certainly, if one would take humanities or social science classes, subjects such as immigration, gun control, sexual assault, transgender issues, abortion religion, police misconduct, and racial inequality might arise. The health and natural sciences would cover climate change and Covid 19 vaccines. Engineering might cover bridges and roads, but from angles of their mechanics and expense, not on how to pay for them- business and some social sciences would cover that.

I’m left wondering if the fear of speaking one’s truth comes from one of two fears I believe could cause a person to think they may suffer some sort of physical or social harm. First, is the fear of appearing to have invalid beliefs: I don’t want to look foolish because I can’t substantiate my beliefs in a way the group can accept. The second fear is that, if I change my belief I will lose the support of people who have supported me up to this point because of those beliefs I’ve held until now. As one example, this survey showed a majority of people who describe themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” feel uncomfortable talking about their beliefs on transgender topics. I assume they are saying that this discussion would occur in a class. I also must assume the opinions or beliefs of that self-described “conservative” person must somehow go contrary to individuals who are transgender and/or contrary to what the person thinks are the beliefs of others within the classroom. Those are the logical reasons for feeling discomfort given those parameters. Is that discomfort a bad thing or an opportunity to grow in understanding, which is what college life is all about?

I will repeat here that the survey conductors said “only 1 out of 10 students reported that they would be extremely likely to consider viewpoints they disagreed with”. It’s hard for ANYONE to change their mind. I will add that, on page 57 of the survey results, when asked for their “perceptions of how often, in classes where viewpoint diversity is relevant, their instructors create a classroom climate in which students with unpopular views would feel comfortable, or uncomfortable, expressing them”, NO political leaning had a majority where the students felt very uncomfortable- even those self-identifying as “very conservative”. The UW System seems capable at some level, when relevant, of providing a means to share viewpoints.

I’m going to share an example from my own time in college (not in Wisconsin) back in the early 1990s that I was reminded of upon reading Sen. Kapenga’s thoughts, the results of the UW study, and my response to both. While I was going from the library to a class, there was a man standing on the walkway with a sign and he was protesting “the evils going on here”. A crowd was gathering and I had to slow down because of that, and I started to hear more of what he was saying, which included his belief that the women shouldn’t be there, but should actually be “at home”. To him, having women seeking higher education was wrong.

My gut twisted and my anger rose. I ended up calling out if he thought we should be having babies and he nodded. I have no idea if the university knew this guy was even there, let alone whether they sanctioned it. His views disgusted me, but he meant little to me because I had heard similar ideas before and didn’t accept them. I had to get to my class so I shook my head and got out of there while others stayed behind.

The survey given by the UW system included questions about situations such as what I just described: I would be one of the students who would be upset over a university supporting speakers that had offensive (personally and socially) beliefs they were sharing publicly. Should a public university pay someone or give space for someone to say things like that man did? Should I as a student have reported him and complained? I believe I probably should have because his beliefs would deny me access to education if they were followed by society. A majority of self-identifying liberal students in the report said they would report a speaker doing this sort of thing. Back in my day, he was alone. Today he might be fronted by others with weapons to ensure he could keep talking as he wished. Students today have a lot more to consider than I did 30-some years ago.

In closing, I wanted to highlight a huge irony of one result of this survey- a survey that was supposed to unveil students views on Freedom of Speech. The survey asked each student if they had learned about the First Amendment or not and then tested their knowledge a bit. The results? Students who reported they had learned about the First Amendment in their classes scored only slightly better on the First Amendment knowledge items presented in the survey compared to those who reported they had not learned anything about the First Amendment.

One thing the survey does make clear is this: we need a lot more focus and practice on the real work of discovering and discussing what is real, what is an opinion, and how we move forward together peacefully.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Letting Go

My writing withered this year.

I wrote twice, and that is basically a cheat because the first one was my review of 2021.

But, having already written my new Twitter profile for 2023, when I re-reading my single piece from February, With Teacher and Student, I see a huge connection with where I see myself going in the coming year.

At the beginning of 2022, I was pooped and worried. My Twitter profile included that fact when I said that a goal of mine was to “Just keep going”. To just remain in the system was a goal. If I could stay, I could do the other things I wanted to accomplish: to keep mentally expanding and to also DO what should be done.

I’m happy to say that I accomplished or made good progress in everything I wanted. I kept going. I read books and met with people who expanded my awareness. I taught as I thought I should in order to support that awareness. I wrote letters to my representatives describing what I saw happening and what I’d like to see happen, and why.

My son started 2022 mouthing off about the stupidity of elections. Over the course of the year, he realized that what he saw on YouTube was false. He saw locally that voting (and whether people run or not) matters. He saw that propaganda doesn’t sway all things as We The People stopped an “inevitable” red wave, that abortion was supported in some states, and that marriage rights would be advocated for by national political leaders even if the Supreme Court was potentially going to not.

While he’s not a philosopher, we had some good discussions over the year, as I did with my other son who can’t vote yet. Our young people are more aware than many believe. And, they are motivated to not accept the status quo. I think my hope of not belittling and of empathizing has helped us understand one another better. I am extremely hopeful that I (we) can let go of the reins to them. I think they have great potential to fly.

Having focused on being more aware of this huge globe in 2022, I see myself seeking to let go in 2023.

Simply put: the mic belongs to those who haven’t held it.

Many are trying to cling to what they’ve known. We should truly live in a post-colonial world that has nations on equal footing with one another and the non-human components must also be included in that equality of voice.

All people. All living things. All non-living things.

Who should be off the mic and working in empathic support?

Those who cling to the term “white”, regardless of gender or their actual DNA. Technically, that would include me by my skin color and DNA. And yes, I don’t want the mic. For example, I don’t want to run for an office. But I *do* want to support with deeds others who haven’t held the mic: for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, for water, air, land.

The white world needs to let go.

I am not advocating for the disappearance of any people. That’s a white concept, anyway, and needs to be let go. Some Native American cultures greet one another with a phrase like “I greet you, relatives of mine.”. I learned in 2022 that “relatives of mine” means ALL. That was a humbling discovery. And so full of good potential!

This non-white and more-than-human world is a heady concept that goes against so much I was brought up with, and I’m sure others will experience feelings of fear, disbelief, anger, or confusion. Letting go is hard. James Bridle's 2022 book Ways of Being is a great book to support the more-than-human concept. 

My feline friend of 13 years, Owen, appears to be slipping away. We’ve spent a month of rollercoaster emotions- is he getting better, how much can we spend, is he suffering. It’s another example for us as a family that everyone dies at some point. It’s the daily living that’s important. If we do that, we can more readily let go when the time comes. We’re trying to listen to him tell us what he wants.

That circles back to my main point. Cats deserve a voice. Our rivers deserve a voice. Our fellow human beings deserve a voice. Our forests deserve a voice. The cats, rivers, people, and forests on continent thousands of miles from me deserve voices. The UN has had a program on protecting biodiversity since 1992 and just completed an international summit in Montreal that, to me, supports and rolls in those non-human voices as well as those who haven’t had the mic.

My only goal for 2023 is to continue this journey toward getting that mic to those who haven’t held it. Bringing the ideas and skills of all onto the stage can let us all work out a better deal…for the whole. My daily actions, words, and connections with others are my tools to do so.

I’m thinking of Ukraine, who some thought would be absorbed by Russia in February 2022. People from around the world came together in a myriad of ways before, during, and to this day to make that not happen. That authoritarian leader has destroyed people, land, water, air, and I’m sure many animals. So many voices silenced. But the Ukrainian people and land still cling to that mic and there are others who are supporting them.

I confess I don’t feel a fire inside me as I look to a new year. I’m neither in a deep pit nor a scenic overlook with a glorious view. I am here.

But you know what? Let’s just go.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

With Teacher and Student

“No. It’s stupid.”
“It doesn’t mean anything.”
“None of my friends are voting.”
“Who cares. It just makes people angry.”
“I’ll just vote for all Trump people. He was funny as hell.”

These were the adamant protestations of my 18-year-old son about voting this year- a typical mixture of honesty, avoidance, and defiance.

As I think back over my life and consider how I would have responded to these statements at different ages and stages, I see more clearly how I and my thinking have evolved. That evolution has been made possible by the people I have been exposed to and the life stories they have shared.

That includes people I have been in direct contact with and those I only know of from a distance. Chance meetings, friendships, disagreements, classes, books, presentations, TV shows, and arts- they all add up to who I am today.

In every encounter, each person can be, and perhaps should be, both teacher and student.

Daniel Tatum said something to that effect to Celeste Headlee in her book, Speaking of Race and it has stuck with me. I can learn where my son is right now as he speaks. I can tell of my own experiences. We can both listen and take in each other’s truths as best as we can. We can ask each other how we have come to think what we do. Perhaps, the interaction will nudge one or both of us in a slightly different direction.

What we are all going through now is not anything completely new to the world, but each day is new to us. It’s a new opportunity. It’s a chance for us to take comfort in the fact that we’re all imperfect, but we can be both bigger and more whole in the future by learning and teaching with each other every day.


That’s a big word in a little package. To be with someone or something is to be beside- not above or below. Not that you’re the same- but you are there in body, mind, and spirit. Another word that springs to mind is: empathy.

Can I empathize with my son?

Yes. Or, I could belittle and push my own desires.

Can I empathize with a stranger?

Yes. Or, I could belittle and push my own desires.

Can I empathize with a forest?

Yes. Or, I could belittle and push my own desires.

If I had you, perhaps I lost you on that last one. I do believe an ecosystem has something that one can be with. That’s the subject for another time, but I wanted to offer it for those who might be ready to consider. If it’s too much, it’s OK to step back from the idea. We can give each other some respectful space.

That’s how we learn and grow.

Did I like my son’s reactions? No. Did I feel the urge to belittle and push my own desires? Yes. I tried to both understand his point of view and offer my own. Did I change his mind? No. But perhaps, not yet.

Not yet.