Take the ‘Knowledge Road’ Less Traveled For Black History Month 24/7/365

Black History is American History

Post updated February 1, 2019

Black History Month is a wonderful time in February (though it shouldn’t be the only time) for people to increase their knowledge and awareness of the significant and ongoing contributions African-Americans have made to American society and its culture.

Unfortunately, celebration of the month has become stuck in the mud topic-wise for quite some time. The same historical facts and biographies are trotted out time and again ad nauseam. Martin Luther King. Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X. The Civil War. Thurgood Marshall. School Desegregation. Frederick Douglas. The Voting Rights Act. Rosa Parks. Slavery. I Have A Dream.

As a result and not surprisingly, important African-American figures, historical events, work and legislation that have had an impact on Black Americans and the United States have become muted or an afterthought.

Of course there will always be those, young or old, who learn something new during the month which will resonate with them. However, there are others who find Black History Month (BHM) no longer interesting because for them it has turned into a form of ’28 Days of Trivia’ instead of it being a deeper dive into the ‘Black History’ knowledge pool.

For those individuals who need a history recharge or just want to learn something new, YETBW is here for you. Below is a list of articles, audio/interviews, books, documentaries and movies that is off-the-Black-History-Month-beaten-path. Learn and enjoy – not just during the month of February.

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AUDIO, VIDEO AND MULTIMEDIA

William A. Scott, WWII servicemen interviewed by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (Image taken from October 1981 interview)
William A. Scott, WWII serviceman interviewed by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (Image taken from October 1981 interview)

WWII Black Soldiers In Europe. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum interviewed several U.S. black servicemen who served throughout Europe during World War II. The soldiers discuss their experiences dealing with racism from American white soldiers and those soldiers who served under Nazi Germany. As historian Stephen Ambrose has said “[Black] soldiers were fighting the world’s worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world’s most segregated army…[t]he irony did not go unnoticed.” Besides instances of racial conflict, you also hear about the soldiers’ combat experience, serving under General Patton, the impact of seeing German labor and concentration camps and even the mundane such as trying to line up a date. More than half a million Black Americans served overseas in various parts of Europe but their stories aren’t mentioned as much as they should be in WWII lore. Hearing these oral histories is more than worthwhile and keeps their history alive.

Dr. King gives his speech 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' in Memphis the day before he was assassinated. (Photo: Archie E. Allen, April 3, 1968)
Dr. King gives his speech ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ the day before he was assassinated. (Photo: Archie E. Allen, April 3, 1968)

I’ve Been To the Mountaintop.’  Yes, it’s a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but it’s one that is shamefully overlooked. He made this speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers. It was also on the night before he was assassinated. It is such a personal and powerful speech; more like a sermon. It’s not uplifting and hopeful like his most famous speech ‘I Have A Dream’ which he gave in 1963. By 1968 he was on a different path and you can hear it in the words and tone of this speech. He is contemplative and tired; not sure how long he has to keep fighting, but he hasn’t laid down his gloves. The words in the last part of the speech are eery in hindsight, yet joyful given the fact that he was speaking on the eve of his death. When he loudly proclaims “I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” it will make your hair stand on end.

Isom Moseley, October, 1939 (Image: Library of Congress )
Isom Moseley, October, 1939 (Image: Library of Congress)

Voices From the Days of Slavery. During Black History Month you hear about the topic of slavery, but you don’t hear much from or about the people who actually lived it. The Library of Congress’ ‘Voices From the Days of Slavery has “almost seven hours of recorded interviews [that] took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom.” Unfortunately, the quality isn’t top-notch, but it’s still worth a listen. Not everyday you get a chance to listen to people who lived through one of the harshest and inglorious periods of American history.

BOOKS AND ARTICLES

Bloods: An Oral History of Black Vietnam Veterans Bloods: Black Veterans of Vietnam War: An Oral History. Unfortunately, the history of Black Veterans is woefully minimal and marginalized, as if they weren’t part of America’s military or war efforts. The twenty veterans in this book (from private first class to colonels, poor to middle-class, all parts of the U.S.) tell their stories of what is was like fighting in Vietnam and the impact it has had on them. You also hear about how they dealt with being a Black American in the U.S. military while living in a country that was going through major racial and cultural upheaval. You can feel their pride, pain, confusion, cynicism and disillusionment concerning the war and themselves. Their stories and experiences are sad, dark, humorous, violent, insightful, and poignant. Terry did an amazing job of putting these stories together without getting in the way of the storytellers. This book is a classic and will stick with you long after you’ve finished it.

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Vicki Thompson-Simmons and her sister, Lynda Thompson-Lindsay, manage the Lawrence H. Woodward Funeral Home (Photo: Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

Dignity in Death for Black Families at a Brooklyn Funeral Home. This article encompasses so much, so well. Readers will learn about the important role black funeral homes have played in the Black Community through the eyes and work of the two women who manage the Lawrence H. Woodward Funeral Home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Vicki Thompson-Simmons and her sister, Lynda Thompson-Lindsay understand the seriousness of their work, its legacy and the emotions that come with it while doing their best to honor the dead and their loved ones. It is a wonderful, informative and heartfelt piece. Simply put, it is more than just about the management of a black funeral home.

The Bluest Eye book cover The Bluest Eye. Morrison has written other well-known books, but this Nobel Prize-winning title shows her at her writing best. It’s the story about an 11-year-old African-American girl named Pecola, growing up in 1940s Ohio who feels inferior because of her skin and eye color. She’s constantly being told she’s ‘ugly’ so she keeps wishing she had blue eyes so that she would be deemed worthy. Controversy has followed this book since its 1970 publication because it deals with racism, pedophilia and rape, all experienced by the main character. The story isn’t just about Pecola, but also her parents – their marital fights, their frustrations living in a mostly white community; her dad’s volatility, her mom working as a servant to a white family. Sometimes the various stories are told matter-of-factly, in a childish tone or in a harsh, painful or surreal manner. Morrison deals with the uncomfortable issues surrounding black vs. white beauty and the bitter reality of Black Americans in early/mid-twentieth century America. It’s a complex book that can be a challenge to read, but it’s worth the effort.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. Ralph Abernathy played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in that he worked closely with Dr. King and was viewed as his successor after King’s death. Yet Abernathy, like many others involved with Dr. King saw their involvement in the Movement overlooked and sometimes forgotten. When this autobiography was originally published in 1989 many African-Americans, Black leaders and other activists were apoplectic about Abernathy airing Dr. King’s ‘dirty laundry’ (i.e., he regularly cheated on his wife, used expletives, wasn’t always a nice person, FBI was spying on him) instead of simply writing about King’s humanity and his tireless civil rights work. Many thought Abernathy had an ax to grind; that he was finally showing his jealousy about King and bitterness over his limited post-Movement success. Maybe some or all of the accusations are true, but this book is still a must-read in that you get an insider view, warts and all, about the people within King’s circle, the actions and decision-making process of other well-known black leaders, the roles played by politicians, governmental actions and the struggles and triumphs of the Movement. As a result of this book future publications on King and the Civil Rights Movement stepped back from the deification of both by providing more insight than reflexive accolades, which is a good thing.

Kindred is the kind of book that will resonate with you long after you’ve read it. Imagine being a black woman in 1976, living in California and about to celebrate your 26th birthday with your new husband when suddenly you’re away pulled away through time and end-up on a pre-Civil War southern plantation where slavery is alive and well? Though time travel is somewhat of a stereotypical science-fiction trope, Butler uses it as a tool, not as a story gimmick. As Dana tries to survive in the slave era you learn about what it meant to be a slave: the fear, the beatings, the rapes, the humiliations – of being seen and treated as being not human. Butler makes you feel everything that Dana is thinking as she tries to deal with the impact of moving between time-periods at a moment’s notice – wondering how long she will be there upon each ‘visit’ and if/when she will ever return home. Octavia E. Butler has written other books and has been called the ‘grand dame of science fiction,’ but the quiet intensity of Kindred is her crowning achievement and should be on everyone’s ‘must read’ list.

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‘The Case for Reparations’ (Photos/Carlos Javier Diaz, June 2014)

The Case for Reparations‘ by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is a ten-part, heartbreaking magnum opus of an essay about why African-Americans should receive reparations from the United States. Coates argument is not based on slavery (which he doesn’t discuss as much given the article’s title) nor on how much money is ‘owed’ to Black Americans (which isn’t mentioned) but the long, cumulative effect of discrimination on generations of African-Americans. The article makes it case by interweaving the generational story of African-Americans and the obstacles they’ve faced (white supremacy, inequality, governmental discrimination) by way of Clyde Ross, a sharecropper’s son who escaped the Jim Crow South who ended up in Chicago fighting for black homeowners. Coates 15,000 word piece is dense in that you might find yourself having to revisit it after the first read, because there is so much interesting information, history and emotion in the piece. Whether you’re an opponent or proponent of reparations this article will give you a better and more complete understanding of the reparations argument.

DOCUMENTARIES, MOVIES, SHOWS AND PROGRAMS

Brother Outside: The Life of Bayard Rustin Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. The title of this documentary sadly sums up Bayard Rustin‘s life as a key member of the Civil Rights Movement. Besides being the chief organizer of the March on Washington and a major influence on CORE and SNCC activists he was also a leader in other movements such as socialism, non-violence and gay rights. It was that latter stance and the fact that he was gay that has kept Rustin out of most history books. Brother Outsider rectifies that mistake by giving viewers the opportunity to learn about a major civil rights player who was marginalized by most of the black civil rights community though they were more than willing to make use of his knowledge and planning skills. In 2013 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The White House Press Release regarding Rustin’s award said he was “an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.” Rustin should be more than just a historical footnote in the fight for civil rights and social justice.

EyesOnThePrize.PBS.CoverPosterEyes On the Prize. This multi-episode documentary, originally aired on PBS in 1987 is considered the seminal documentary on the Civil Rights Movement in America. It’s not exactly off-the-beaten-path as it pertains to this article. However, as time has passed, it has become somewhat overlooked because it wasn’t available for years (1993-2006) due to  copyright issues. Eyes On the Prize, as described by PBS, tells the story of The Movement [t]hrough contemporary interviews and historical footage [as] the series covers all of the major events of the civil rights movement from 1954-1985. Series topics range from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954 to the Voting Rights Act in 1965; from community power in schools to ‘Black Power’ in the streets; from early acts of individual courage through to the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions.” Words do not do this series justice in regards to how pivotal, informative and heart-breaking this series is in describing and showing how Black Americans (and their allies) fought for their personhood and legal rights to be treated fairly and equally in a nation that was resistant to recognizing their humanity. Note: All 14 episodes are available here via YouTube. Watch them while you can before they’re taken down.

Unforgivable Blackness: Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Johnson didn’t act the way black people were supposed to act in the early part of the twentieth century. He didn’t know his ‘place’ and he eventually paid the price for it. But at one point in time Johnson was the  most fierce and dominant boxer that America had ever seen. He was the first African-American heavyweight champion who annihilated black and white opponents, the latter of which caused major debates amongst whites regarding black superiority and led to race riots. Add to that his unrepentant flashing of his success and riches while cutting a sexual and marital swath through a string of white women, Johnson was too much for many whites and blacks to handle. This documentary (based on the same-titled book by Geoffrey C. Ward) really digs into Johnson’s personal and professional history via archival film, photographs and interview with boxing experts. You don’t have to be a boxing fan to appreciate this film. Note: I also recommend ‘The Great White Hope‘ (1970) starring James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson (obviously based on Johnson). Jones is fierce as Jefferson and doesn’t pull any punches (pun intended) in showing us Johnson’s anger, brutishness, hurts of what it was like to be a feared and successful black man and athlete in early 20th Century America. You can watch it here on YouTube.

Boondocks Return of the King The Boondocks ‘Return of the King’ When ‘Boondocks,’ an animated show on the Cartoon Network, first broadcast ‘Return of the King’ the outrage came high and fast (though it did end-up winning the prestigious Peabody Award for ‘Best Storytelling‘). Mainly because Aaron McGruder, the show’s creator and writer had Dr. King dropping the n-word several times while raging against ‘shiftless Negroes.’ But the brouhaha obscured what the episode was really about – the reimagining of history. What if Dr. King wasn’t assassinated in 1968? What if he had just been shot; remained in a coma for 32 years and woke-up in 2000 America? The episode shows an aged King trying to adjust to the new media and culture that is just too loud and fast for him. Huey Freeman, Boondock’s 10-year old, socially-conscious main character sees King’s return as an opportunity for African-Americans to start a new revolution, but King and Huey soon realize that they have their work cut out for them. The episode is full of cynicism, along with anger, disgust and sadness, yet still hopeful. It is an enlightening, ballsy and fierce take on a historical icon and U.S. and African-American culture.

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-6-06-02-pmThe Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Pittman is not an actual person nor was she based on a historical figure. She is the 110-year old black woman and protagonist in Ernest J. Gaines 1971 novel which was the basis for the same-titled movie. This 1974 television movie (made before the miniseries ‘Roots’) was ground-breaking in that it showed many facets of the African-American experience that was rarely seen in movies or on television, such as slavery, plantation life, lynchings and poverty. The viewer sees and hears about Pittman’s life as a slave girl during the Civil War era and up to and beyond the Civil Rights Movement. We also see America grappling with its racial, cultural and military wars amongst its black and white citizens.  It’s all done through the eyes and narration of an elderly woman who lets us know that she has seen, battled and lived a lot over her many decades. Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman is simply fantastic in the film. She brings Pittman to life, so it’s understandable that people over the years have taken the movie and book title seriously and thought Pittman was a real person. The movie isn’t an official autobiography, but it is a biography of America’s history that is definitely worth seeing. Note: The movie can be viewed in its entirety online here via YouTube.

Cooley High (1975) Cooley High. Teen movies have been around for decades, but most film buffs say the genre really started with American Graffiti (1973).  Since then Hollywood has been producing teen movies like they’re going out of style. Unfortunately movies about black teens are still MIA, which is what makes ‘Cooley High’ (1975) still so special forty years later. Plainly, it is just a movie about black high school students in Chicago during the 1960s or as its screenwriter Eric Monte described it “a movie without a plot.” It may not have a storyline but a lot happens in the film such as dating woes, failing grades, carjacking, drugs and the joys of cutting class along with a killer Motown soundtrack. The teens in the film were the usual suspects: jocks, jokesters, nerds, pretty girls and bullies but instead of it taking place in white suburbia the setting was south side Chicago in the rough Cabrini-Green public housing projects. It’s considered a black cinema classic, but it also ranks up there as one of the best high school movies.

 A Soldier’s Story. This 1984 movie is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Off-Broadway play, a tone and feel which shows up in the film on occasion. There a lot of soon-to-be-well-known actors  (Howard Rollins, Jr., Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier) along with seasoned broadway veterans (Adolph Caesar, Art Evans, Scott Paulin). However, its the work of Rollins, Washington and Caesar (nominated for Best Supporting Oscar for his role) that creates the foundation for the film. The plot centers around a black officer (Rollins) who is sent to Louisiana to investigate the murder of a black sergeant who was killed during the end of World War II. The film chronicles the racism and Jim Crow South that the black military men have to deal with on and off the army base, but also the intra-racism that they have amongst themselves based on speech, education, class and geography. A provocative film set inside a whodunnit scenario with a strong cast.

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Do you have any off-the-beaten-path suggestions (books, movies, programs, etc.) regarding Black History and/or African-American culture that are interesting, informative or note-worthy? If so, feel free to leave them in the comment section.

If You Are Still In Need of Some Parental Advice…

As my 11-year old son prepared for his first day as a sixth grader, I had begun to think about what I’ve done as a parent to get him to this stage. Though I’m not a fan of sports metaphors, I can’t help but think of my parental ups and downs as home runs, doubles, foul balls or woeful strike outs. Luckily I’ve had more successes than failures.

My son, Noah Collins, hanging out in his room with his guitar (Image Source: Angelia Levy, May 2014)
My son, Noah, hanging out in his room with his guitar (Image Source: Angelia Levy, May 2014)

There have been prospective, new and overwhelmed parents who have asked me for general parental advice, like how to handle situation X or prevent incident Y from happening again.

I never attempt to pass myself off as a child psychologist or a licensed counselor when giving advice. Furthermore, I don’t pretend to be the Martha Stewart of parenting and have found those who act as such arrogant and pretentious. I always listen closely before I dole out advice nor do I take umbrage if it’s not followed.

Though my journey as a parent is not complete, there are rules that I have discovered and followed that have served me well, which I’ve passed on to others.

So here are my ‘Top 10’ Parenting Tips that have helped make my preteen son a responsible, observant and thoughtful individual (when he’s not driving me semi-bonkers by bouncing between ages 7-17 without giving me prior notice):

1. Make sure your child knows he/she will face consequences for their actions, no exceptions. If your child figures out that you’re what I define as a ‘serial warner’ (i.e. someone who gives their child constant and repetitive warnings with little or no follow through on their ‘threats’) then you’re setting yourself up to be challenged by your child regarding every request or demand you make of them. The last time I’ve had a major challenge from my son was when he was 5 years old. He was giving me a lot of backtalk because he thought it was funny. I wasn’t sure if the backtalk was just a phase or something that would become a bad habit, therefore I decided to play things by ear. Unfortunately, it only got worse, which is when I threw down the hammer. I told him that if he did it one more time I was going to take away all his toys for a week. He didn’t believe me so he ended up watching me bag up all of his toys and remove them from his room. Afterwards I taped a calendar to his door with a big ‘X’ over every day he would be without his toys. He was stunned. Sometimes he would sit on his bed and just stare at his empty floor. When the seven days were up I returned his toys without saying a word. Drastic? Yes. Successful? Most definitely. He finally learned what consequences meant and that I meant what I said, which improved our relationship significantly.

2. Show respect for the body and its bodily functions. I cringe whenever I hear parents and their kids use cute nicknames for body parts such as calling a penis a ‘wee wee’ or a vagina ‘little girl parts.’ How are you going to teach your child to respect their body and the bodies of others if you mystify it so much that they inadvertently don’t value its importance? I’m not saying that you should use the word ‘excrement’ or ‘sh*t’ instead of ‘taking number two.’ However, using proper names for body parts, explaining how they work and the similarities and differences between the male and female anatomy will go a long way in helping your child understand proper and improper body boundaries and most importantly his/her sexuality when the time comes.

Image Source: Everyday People Cartoons. Cartoon by Cathy Thorne
Image Source: Everyday People Cartoons. Cartoon by Cathy Thorne

3. Don’t run from questions because you feel that your child isn’t ready for the answer or you didn’t see it coming. Most of the times it seems parents are the ones who don’t want to deal with a question. I ended up having my first serious talk about sexuality with my son when he was eight-years old. I was watching a Boondocks episode when two male rappers/characters on the show admitted they were attracted to each other and started kissing. My son happened to walk in on the episode and asked ‘Why are those guys kissing?’ I could’ve said something to the effect of ‘I’ll talk to you later about it’ or ‘you’re too young right now for that conversation’ but I didn’t. I somehow knew that this ‘talk’ was going to happen now so I answered his question, which led to other questions and discussions about heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender relations. As a result he is receptive to all forms of expressed affection and to those who are part of the LGBT community. Most importantly, my son realized that he could ask me anything without being prejudged or shutdown. I’m not advocating that all parents should be as forthcoming because obviously each child’s emotional maturity is different. However, before you go into deflect mode on topic X make sure you feel it’s necessary and not because you simply don’t want to deal with the topic yet. Remember – it’s not about you – it’s about your child.

4. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. This lyric from Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler’ song is also apropos when dealing with your child. You have to figure out what battles are worth fighting. Are you trying to teach your child a lesson or are you just standing your ground to prove you’re the one in charge? For example, when my son hit fourth grade we used to battle over what he would wear to school. I would try to make sure that he went through most of his wardrobe so that he wasn’t wearing the same combinations all the time  or clothing combo nightmares. We locked horns regularly which started to drive my husband up a wall. I eventually realized that by forcing my son to wear what I picked out put us both in a bad mood. We eventually came to a compromise where he could pick out what he wanted, but if his mom and dad didn’t like his wardrobe selection he had to change. In this instance, my decision to ‘fold’ made things better for mom, dad and son. As a parent you will find yourself having to re-learn this lesson with your child so don’t be surprised that you will be traveling this road again several more times.

5. Sometimes you have to let your child struggle in order for them to learn how to accomplish things on their own. As a parent you want to help your child at all times, especially when they’re young. But at some point you have to let them figure things out on their own, even when they’re not successful at it (ideally without allowing it to turn into a meltdown). Whether it’s looking up a word in a dictionary; opening a container or getting dressed. It’ll teach them to keep trying instead of immediately running to you or others for help.

6. Don’t overschedule your child with activities. We all want to keep our kids active so that they remain physically and emotionally healthy and hopefully have a good time. But think about the many things your child does on a regular basis: school, homework, childcare, extracurricular activities, hanging out with family and friends, tutoring, afterschool clubs and much more. Your child has a very busy life. But just like adults, kids need downtime as well. Don’t look at it from the viewpoint of you being a bad parent for allowing your child to occasionally to sleep in late on weekends, chill out in his/her room or watch television zonked in the family room. Look at it as allowing them time to rest, which they will always need.

My first and only 'mean note' that my son gave me. He wrote it when he was age 6. I immediately pointed out his misspellings and handed the note back to him. We then had a 'stare down' contest until he decided he had enough for the day. We still laugh about this moment. (Image: Angelia Levy)
My first and only ‘mean note’ that I received from my son. He wrote it when he was age 6. It was supposed to read  ‘Dear Meany, I am going to leave. I don’t want you anymore.’ I immediately pointed out his misspellings and handed the note back to him. We then had a ‘stare down’ battle until he decided he had enough for the day. We still laugh about this moment and my ‘Tiger Mom/English Teacher’ reaction. (Image Source: Angelia Levy)

7. It’s not too early to assign chores/responsibilities to your child. By the time I was twelve I was assigned several chores, including cleaning the bathroom. I’m not one of those old-school parents where I think today’s children are completely infantilized. However, I do think that parents are waiting too late to assign their kids regular chores to do. As a result, their child doesn’t handle responsibilities well – or worse, you end up doing it yourself. Just start small such as having them cleaning their room, helping to unload/reload the dishwasher, putting their dirty clothes in the laundry bin, taking out the garbage or placing dishes in the sink after dinner. This will get them in the habit of doing things for themselves without prompting from their parent(s).

8. Sleepovers and playdates are great for children and parents. When you have your child’s friend over for a playdate/hangout or sleepover it’s a win-win for the child and the parent. Your child has someone to play with, and it gives you time to do other things. If your child goes over to someone else’s home then you have that much needed quiet time for yourself or with your significant other. Therefore strive hard to connect with the family of your child’s close friend(s) so that you both get in the habit of having hangouts and sleepovers at each other’s homes. Besides it being a good idea for your child’s social and emotional development, it will save you a lot of money on babysitters.

9. Do your best not to fall into ‘assigned’ parenting roles. This is sometimes hard to do. Depending on the set-up of how your family works (i.e. single parent, working parent with stay-at-home parent), this can dictate the parental dynamics of how you interact with your child. Nevertheless, don’t allow how you interact with your child to be determined by your gender, your preferred interests or disciplinary ideology. You don’t want to be viewed as the no-fun, no playtime, always-make-me-do-stuff-I-don’t-want-to-do or ‘drill sergeant’ parent. Mix-up your roles from time to time; do things that you don’t normally do with your child so that he/she sees you in different a light. For example, if you’re the ‘homework parent,’ maybe next time when you go to the park you should seriously hit the jungle gym with your kid. If you’re the ‘basketball coach,’ take a detour and hang out at the library with your kid on occasion. Going outside the box a bit will bring more parental balance in a two-parent household. And for single parents, your child will be more aware and hopefully appreciative of the many hats that you can and do wear.

10. Don’t inadvertently put them in a bubble in your effort to protect them from what’s happening in the world. As a parent you don’t want your child to experience any bad feelings (i.e fear, hurt, pain, embarrassment, etc.) until they’re able to handle them. But sometimes things don’t work out that way, so you have to prepare them to handle these emotions when that time comes. My husband and I have had talks with our son about life and death; we’ve also talked to him about racism/racial bias, driving while black, and police brutality because we know that it may be just a matter of time when he will have to deal with these issues as an African-American male. He has seen videos, news, movies and documentaries about the black experience in America (Roots, Fruitvale Station, Central Park Five case, civil rights movement, death of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, etc.) to help him understand his history better. If I had a daughter I would’ve added gender bias to the conversation as well. Kids need to know that the world isn’t always so wonderful, which is possible to do without scarring them. Start slowly by picking a movie or program for you to watch together and make sure to allot time afterwards to discuss it with them, to answer any questions they may have. It’ll be a teachable, bonding moment for both of you.

Not all children are alike so don’t push them down a path that they’re not ready to take. However, don’t hold them back just because you’re not ready to take that journey with them. Yes, the advice sounds simple, but following through on it will be hard. You must always keep in mind that your job as a parent is to help your child grow so that he/she is eventually able to take care of themselves.

Anything less than that then you’re not doing the one job you should be doing as a parent.

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Suggested Parent Resources:

Mr Nussbaum: A wonderful website has extensive reading, math, social studies and science tools for grades K-8 that are fun and challenging. Lessons can be done individually by the child or in concert with a parent.

Khan Academy: If you find yourself flummoxed by math, science, history or any other academic questions that your child asks you this is the site for both of you. It’s a free site full of straight-forward information (standard videos, interactive videos, etc.) for students, parents, teachers or anyone who wants to learn.

Library of Congress: Their ‘Kids and Families’ page is chockfull of online information on books, history, geography, music and much more.

Scholastic’s Parent and Child’s 100 Greatest Books: List contains classics and other well-known books grouped by age and genres.

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know: Books for ages preschool to twelve that have main characters who are people of color.

YouTube: A great place to see and hear music (full albums, videos, etc.) which you can share with your child. A lot of the music downloads have lyrics to them to aid in any sing-along efforts. It’s a fun, easy and informative way to spend time with your child while sharing and learning about a wide variety of music genres.

Common Sense Media Best Documentaries: Good list of documentaries that are educational, uplifting, serious and funny and can be viewed by the entire family.

PBS American Experience: Great learning tool for kids in that its documentaries are straightforward and handle sensitive material in an appropriate manner.

If Letter Grades Were Good Enough For Jesus: Montgomery County’s (MD) New Grading System

Updated November 16, 2018

Since the dawn of the Republic (well maybe not that far back) letter grades have been the standard in most public and private schools in the United States. Generations of students grew up with the A-E (or A-D and an F) grading system to help them determine how well they were doing in school. It was a simple, comprehensible but exacting way for parents, teachers and school administrators to track a student’s academic progress (or lack thereof); to determine their strengths and areas in need of improvement.

Sadly, school districts across the nation have been dumping its standard letter grading system for its elementary and/or middle schools like a first wife whose husband traded her in for a newer model due to a midlife crisis. In the case for Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), in 2013 its elementary school grading system was replaced with the convoluted ES-P-I-N-M-NEP version (see chart).

The new grading system is part of the implementation of Montgomery County’s Curriculum 2.0 – based on the Common Core education standards. (Note: MCPS began rolling out the new curriculum on a grade-by-grade basis in 2009-2010 with some kindergarten classrooms at participating Curriculum 2.0 pilot schools). At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, grades K-6 will use Curriculum 2.0 and grades 7-12 will continue with its previous MCPS standard curriculum (AKA ‘Curriculum 1.0’ ). Therefore, by Fall 2020 Curriculum 2.0 will be used by grades K-12 in Montgomery County.

MCPS’ adoption of its version of the Common Core curriculum hasn’t phased most Montgomery County parents. It’s the new K-5 grading system – designed by MCPS – to work with the new curriculum to better measure elementary students’ knowledge and academic aptitude that has parents flummoxed.

Luckily for us (and other 5th grade students and their families at our former elementary school) we only had to deal with this hair-brained grading system for one year (2013-2014) since MCPS will still use the A-E grading system for its 6-12th grade students. But there will be many current elementary school parents and families with incoming kindergarten students who will be tortured for several years trying to figure out MCPS’ elementary school grading system, that is, if they ever do.

New Curriculum = New Grades = Confusion

In June 2013, our son’s elementary school administration gave its rising 5th grade parents an overview of Curriculum 2.0 and the new grading system. The parents didn’t have questions about the grading system, but some were up in arms over the elimination of  ‘gifted/accelerated’ classrooms (not surprising since helicopter parents have been jockeying for better placement for their kids since they were fetuses).

Montgomery County (MD) Public School's 'Curriculum 2.0' Overview (source: www.mcpsmd.org)
Montgomery County (MD) Public School’s ‘Curriculum 2.0’ Overview (Source: MCPS)

My husband and I weren’t pleased with the new curriculum. We definitely weren’t thrilled with the new grading system, but decided to abstain from an opinion until we had an opportunity to see both in practice.

When my son started his 5th grade year in Fall 2013, I immediately noticed the lack of grades on returned assignments. As to be expected we weren’t seeing the A-E grades, but we also weren’t consistently seeing the new grades (ES-P-I-N) either. Grades on assignments were numerical in nature, for example “8/10” or “15/20” based on the number of questions the student was asked (e.g., ’10’) and problems that the student solved/answered correctly (e.g., ‘8’). Since the fifth grade teachers were learning and incorporating the new grading system and Curriculum 2.0 simultaneously, I wasn’t surprised by the primary usage of numerical grades. However, when I spoke with parents with children in other grades at our elementary school and at others schools in Montgomery County, I discovered this same numerical grading system/method was being used in their child(ren)’s classrooms as well.

Our son knew what the new grades meant (e.g., ES = exceptional, P = proficient, etc.), but we were pretty sure that he didn’t truly understand how MCPS interpreted the grades. As a result, my husband and I got into the habit of translating his numerical grades into the standard A-E letter grading system and the new grading system so that our son would have a more solid understanding of his academic progress.

For many parents, the new grading system primarily existed on their child(ren)’s report cards for them to attempt to decipher, with one Montgomery County parent Chuck Thomas wondering if ‘ES’ stood for “elusive secret.” Was this what MCPS had in mind for its state-of-the-art-allegedly-more-honest-and-accurate new grading system?

Old Grades vs. New Grades

So, what was wrong with the A-E grades? According to Ebony Langford-Brown, MCPS’ Director of Elementary Instruction and Achievement it’s because when students used to get an ‘A’ grade it was for “[a recollection] of facts” but that the new grading system now shows that “proficiency means that [a student] can use the facts in some way and use them differently — synthesizing, analyzing and making value judgments.”

"We improved our elementary report card to better align with the curriculum and to provide parents with more information about what a student knows and is able to do." - Montgomery County MD Superintendent Joshua Starr from August 2013 letter to MCPS families (Image: Enoch Hsaio, Silver Chips Online, Dec. 16, 2011)
“We improved our elementary report card to better align with the curriculum and to provide parents with more information about what a student knows and is able to do.” – Montgomery County MD Superintendent Joshua Starr from August 2013 letter to MCPS families (Image: Enoch Hsaio, Silver Chips Online, Dec. 16, 2011)

Yet, if MCPS is so gung-ho about the new grading system and curriculum why haven’t they implemented both for all MCPS students? Why the grade-by-grade roll-out? MCPS knew that implementing a new curriculum and grading system throughout grades K-12 would cause a serious parental riot, especially among high school parents. Could you imagine high school kids trying to explain an ES-P-I-N transcript to potential college recruiters? Middle school parents wouldn’t be too pleased with the change either given their children would be entering the pivotal high school grade years.

As a result, MCPS decided it would be easier to take a hit to the face than a kick in the balls (metaphorically speaking), which is why they ended-up only using elementary school students and their parents as guinea pigs for its new curriculum and grading system. Maybe they thought elementary school parents would be more receptive (nee malleable) to its new curriculum and grading system. If things worked out then MCPS would have data to support its curriculum and grade system changes. If it doesn’t do well then they’ve only caused academic and administrative problems for elementary schools and their students respectively. No big deal.

Who really is profiting from the new grading system?

If you answered ‘students’ then you’re either a strong Common Core Curriculum supporter, an idealistic person or a resident of fantasyland. The people (ahem ‘company’) that are truly benefiting from the new grading system is the Pearson Company – Montgomery County Public School System’s official testing company. Education Week describes Pearson as an “education provider with worldwide reach” who “[develops] test-items, test delivery, reporting of results, and analysis of student performance for a group of states that are part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two main consortia designing tests linked to the common-core standards.”

If MCPS intends to spread Curriculum 2.0 throughout all grades then it will need a proper testing procedure to accurately capture a student’s progress with its new curriculum, which teachers will record via the ES-P-I-N and A-E grading system. Since Maryland is now a PARCC state (one of 14 states and the District of Columbia) and Pearson is a PARCC test provider, who else but Pearson are Montgomery County and Maryland State Departments of Education going to use for their testing needs?  Though Erick Lang, MCPS Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Programming would probably beg to differ, the decision was a fait accompli. He said that MCPS selected Pearson for the following reasons:

It would be mutually beneficial to collaborate on the development of this unique curriculum. The partnership, and the resulting resources, provided MCPS with the opportunity to expand [its] staff, resulting in a more robust curriculum, including more assessments and online professional development. (EdTechDigest.com, Jan. 31, 2013)

Maybe Pearson was interested in working with MCPS, but I’m sure the fact that grades K-5 (Curriculum 2.0 users) and 6-12 (non 2.0 users) MCPS students will be tested using PARCC played a significant financial part in Pearson’s desire to saddle-up with MCPS, the 17th largest school system in the United States with over 150,000 students.

Final Thoughts

It will be after 2020 when MCPS will be able to assess whether it’s new curriculum has been a good thing for Montgomery County. Furthermore, the elementary school’s new grading system, which generally has not been well-received, will be lucky to last five years.

Whether you’re a proponent or opponent of the Curriculum 2.0 and/or the ES-P-I-N grading system, it’s hard to believe that MCPS truly stands behind either given the piecemeal way both have been installed. Nevertheless it appears MCPS’ Curriculum 2.0 is here to stay and elementary school students, parents, teachers and administrators will continue to be MCPS’ test subjects for the immediate future.

On this issue, the Montgomery County Public School System deserves an ‘N’ for execution (that’s a ‘D’ to everyone else).

………………..

UPDATES:

–(February 3, 2015) Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr announced his resignation. His resignation was effective February 16, 2015.

–(March 8, 2016) Montgomery County Public Schools hires Jack R. Smith as its new superintendent. Smith has a four-year contract with MCPS.

–(September 2017) “Montgomery County school officials are switching back to a traditional grading scale for most elementary school students after four years of report card confusion.”

–(March/April 2018) Montgomery County Public Schools announces that it is looking to replace Curriculum 2.0, which many educators had found to be “lacking.” Parents had mixed-reactions to the news.

–(May 2018) “Potential conflict of interest derails curriculum rollout in Md. school system” MCPS put a ‘hold’ on its search to “overhaul its classroom curriculum” due to its concern about a potential conflict of interest.  Two of its soon-to-be retiring employees (one of them being Erick Lang, Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction programs) have been involved in the ‘new curriculum’ selection search though their future employer is one of the vendors/companies who are under consideration by MCPS.

–(August 2018) “Montgomery County Public Schools has renewed its request for bids for new instructional materials for English and Math to replace Curriculum 2.0 in elementary and middle schools and expects to present the school board with options by the end of the year.”

–(September 2018) “MCPS Prepares for Curriculum Change” Elementary and middle school teachers at 70 schools will be preparing to use the new curriculum materials during the spring of 2019 once a provider is chosen is January [2019]. Once a provider is chosen, MCPS teachers will be able to view the instructional materials and have access to professional development.

–(June 2019) “MCPS Exploring Idea of New High School English, Math Curriculum” The county Board of Education approved the purchase of elementary English curriculum and pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade math, middle school math and middle school language arts. The new lessons will be rolled out in phases to 136 elementary schools and 40 middle schools, beginning in the fall. –(June 2019) “MCPS Exploring Idea of New High School English, Math Curriculum”

………………..

Notes: 1) The ‘If letter grades were good enough for Jesus’ title is a paraphrase of the quote “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas”, often credited to James Ferguson (governor of Texas) who in 1917, allegedly said those famous words in reference to the issue of  bilingualism in Texas schools. 2) I want to thank Donald Earl Collins for providing me with feedback and clarity concerning MCPS’ educational policies.

Teen Pregnancy Study: Students Need Better School Support. Really?!

Kali Gonzalez, reads to her daughter Kiah, 2 at their home in St. Augustine, Florida. (Photo/Associated Press, 9/10/2012)

I normally don’t read the Education Section on many mainstream news sites because the articles are anemic and pro forma at best. Unfortunately, the ‘education news beat’ has taken a major hit as newspapers have cut staff and costs to save money.

Yet, I found myself perusing the education news section on the Huffington Post website. The article “Teen Pregnancy Study: Students Need Better School Support” (11/26/2012) caught my eye, because the topic of ‘teen pregnancy’ and ‘education’ doesn’t pop up much in the news cycle. Also because the article ludicrously states the obvious though a good portion of America’s public education system would beg to differ. Below is an excerpt from the article discussing a teen mom’s plight and how schools have dealt with the issue of teen moms:

When 15-year-old Kali Gonzalez became pregnant, the honors student considered transferring to an alternative school. She worried teachers would harass her for missing class because of doctor’s appointments and morning sickness. A guidance counselor urged Gonzalez not to, saying that could lower her standards. Instead, her counselor set up a meeting with teachers at her St. Augustine high school to confirm she could make up missed assignments, eat in class and use the restroom whenever she needed. Gonzalez, who is now 18, kept an A-average while pregnant. She capitalized on an online school program for parenting students so she could stay home and take care of her baby during her junior year. She returned to school her senior year and graduated with honors in May. But Gonzalez is a rare example of success among pregnant students. Schools across the country are divided over how to handle them, with some schools kicking them out or penalizing students for pregnancy-related absences. And many schools say they can’t afford costly support programs, including tutoring, child care and transportation for teens who may live just a few miles from school but still too far to walk while pregnant or with a small child.

Though we live in a more enlightened age, the stigma of teen pregnancy (one of the scarlet letters of the teen set) still exists. Parents/soon-to-be grandparents are pissed that their daughter is pregnant or that that their son ‘knocked someone up.’ Pregnant girls feel shocked and ashamed and soon-to-be teen fathers are stunned, depressed or angry.

Schools, parents, friends, doctors, non-profits, other family members, etc. can preach abstinence and safe-sex until they’re blue-in-the-face. It doesn’t change the fact that teens are still having babies.

Ostracizing teen moms to special schools for ‘girls in their condition’ is not the answer. Also, schools need to stop equating the ‘acknowledgement of teen pregnancy/assisting pregnant teens’ with the idea that the school is somehow promoting teen sex. Providing school support systems to help pregnant teens and teen moms stay in school will help them finish high school and maybe pursue post-high school education. Most importantly, having their peers see these pregnant girls and their babies’ fathers in their classrooms will cause some teens to think twice about having unprotected sex. Nothing like seeing living, breathing examples of how your life would change by having a baby.

I’m not saying that schools should serve as some type of defacto parent, though some already do whether parents like it or not. However, schools need to stop putting their heads in the sand when it comes to teen pregnancy and other student issues (i.e., racism, bullying, sexuality, sexism, etc.) that they’re not comfortable dealing with because these issues will not go away. In the end, schools are supposed to educate all students and help them graduate, even pregnant girls and teen moms.

Lies, Damn Lies and Unemployment Numbers

On August 5th the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) via the Department of Labor announced that there wasn’t much movement in the unemployment rate (from 9.2% to 9.1%) and in the number of unemployed persons (13.9 million) since April. However,  117,000 new jobs have been created since June with most of the job gains in health care, retail trade, manufacturing and mining. Not such great news.

Whenever the U.S. Department of Labor announces the nation’s quarterly unemployment rate I always double it. I believe my mathematical adjustment better reflects the country’s true unemployment status of its citizens.

The gathering of unemployment data has been incomplete and under-reported. In other words, the unemployment numbers are utter bullshit.

Who are they counting?

Every day I hear and read about people who have been unemployed for years; living on their savings to get by. I see obviously unemployed 20somethings roaming the malls or riding the metro. I’ve been in DC libraries in the afternoon where I see people between the ages of 30-60 using the library computers or personal laptops looking and applying for jobs. I talk to people who have family members who were laid-off from their $70K+ jobs who are now working part-time for $8/hour at some retail store. I know people who have been underemployed for almost four years and have been looking for full-time work for just as long. We see some of these people every day. Does the BLS see these people?!

If the BLS numbers were a true reflection of the nation’s jobless rate–which is probably closer to my suggested 19.2% instead of 9.1%– Americans would be stunned. They would also be very scared if  they came across this tidbit on  the BLS website which states that “UI information cannot be used as a source for complete information on the number of unemployed.”

The UI (unemployment insurance) is the number of people who apply for and receive unemployment benefits. The reason why this data isn’t a complete source because it doesn’t calculate a) unemployed people delaying to apply for unemployment benefits; b) those who are underemployed and 3) those who have exceeded their unemployment benefits and have given up looking for work. Most importantly, this data, unlike the unemployment rate isn’t collected monthly; normally it’s done quarterly or biannually.

Yet the the BLS numbers are used as the source for unemployment data; constantly reported as gospel. How can BLS data be reported as factual when its own website implies that some of its data is incomplete?

History of Unemployment Data

The BLS has been reporting the nation’s unemployment numbers for over 70 years since 1933 during the President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration. These numbers are what keep the nation going. Financial decisions ranging from corporate investments to whether to buy a new home are sometimes determined by the reported unemployment rate.

The unemployment numbers are based on the Current Population Survey (CPS) a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. government that calculates the rate of unemployment in the United States. The survey does not interview every American which would be unwieldy, but a sample of the population. That sample amounts to 110,000 individuals (60,000 households) at least 15 years of age that are surveyed per month. The samples are grouped geographically so as to represent each state and the District of Columbia.

CPS is the largest survey conducted and claims that its numbers are right “90 out of 100 times” meaning that there count is probably off by “290,000 people.”

All these caveats and qualifications to their data, yet their unemployment numbers are still repeatedly cited as an economic bellwether.

It’s not only their data which is  a tad suspect, but how it defines employment and unemployment is also food for thought.

Employed vs. Unemployed

According to the BLS website “People with jobs are employed. People who are jobless, looking for jobs, and available for work are unemployed. People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.”

Sounds simple enough, but labor statistics are not that clear-cut, though BLS’s data seems to suggest that it is.

BLS attempts to do its best to provide factual and erroneous-free data stating that its interviewers “do not decide the respondents’ labor force classification.” The BLS sites states that interviewers (U.S. Census workers) are instructed to “simply ask the questions in the prescribed way and record the answers.” Then “based on information collected in the survey and definitions programmed into the computer, individuals are then classified as employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force.”

Let’s take a look at those definitions which help decide the nation’s unemployment rate:

  • employed – The BLS numbers that contribute to the unemployment/employment rate doesn’t specify whether your employment is part-time or full-time. It doesn’t go into details about whether you’re job is a minimum wage job that you had to take because you were laid-off from your $60,000/year job. It doesn’t worry about the fact that your full-time job was switched to a part-time job with less money. It doesn’t account for the fact that your part-time hours were cut from 30 hours to 10 hours per week. As long as you are employed in some capacity, no matter how untenable or financially debilitating it is, the BLS considers you to be employed.
  • employed/length of employment – The BLS will also classify you as being employed if you’ve worked at least 5 weeks during their quarterly reporting periods. In other words, as long as someone works at least 20 weeks out of a 52-week period they’re considered gainfully employed. Some of these people may actually be underemployed, but not according to BLS.
  • unemployed – This number is based on those people who have filed and received unemployment benefits (UI). The emphasis should be on ‘filed’ because as far as BLS is concerned if you are unemployed and not receiving unemployment benefits then you’re not on their unemployment radar. Some of us know people who have been laid off from work whose unemployment benefits have run out and have been looking for employment for months, sometimes years. The BLS doesn’t have a classification for these individuals, but they are out there
  • not in the labor force – This antiquated description is for those who are 16+ who have never held a job or looked for a job. People who have not worked or no longer work due to a disability. One of BLS’ examples mentioned on their site is named ‘Linda Coleman’ who is a homemaker who is “occupied with her normal household chores” and has “neither held a job nor looked for a job.” According to the Business Insider, teen participation rate in the workforce has been on the decline since the 1950s. As of January 2011 teens represent only 3% of the workforce though there are 74 million teens in the U.S. Surely the unemployment rate would increase if it had to account for an influx of fresh on-the-job market teens looking for work.

The job status for many Americans is not as clear-cut as it used to be, yet BLS still gathers its data based on the definition of employment that was established during the era of the FDR presidency and the Great Depression.

Truth in Numbers

It is impossible to survey every person in the United States about their employment status, especially if you’re trying to report this data on a monthly basis.

However, there has to be a way for BLS to track those people who no longer receive unemployment benefits, to find out about their employment status post-benefits. We need to know if these individuals have found a full-time position with comparable salary and if they’re underemployed or unemployed. If they’re still unemployed are they looking for work or have they taken a temporary or permanent break from job hunting?

Back to the 9.1% unemployment rate. It does paints a semi-rosy picture, even though several job prognosticators and economists see it as an arbiter of even more bad news to come. The fear is that if the nation hits double digits then we will be in worse shape, than expected. The fact is many Americans are already there, some have been experiencing the worse for quite some time.

Sophia Koropeckyj, a labor economist at Moody’s Analytics a credit analysis and financial management firm said, “Clearly, the 9.1 percent does not at all reflect what is going onabout the unemployment rate.

You can’t get much clearer than that. Too bad BLS’ data can’t do the same.

Social Media and Civic Engagement: Many Questions, A Few Answers

Diana Owen, Lee Rainie, Mindy Finn and Macon Phillips – Panelists, “How Social Networking Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and Civic Participation,” Brookings Institution, June 28, 2011 (Photo/Angelia Levy)

Can social networks increase our involvement in the political process beyond clicking the ‘like’ button?

Politics and social media have finally made a connection. Yet, the level of understanding and usage of social media varies from person to person. The public, politicians and governmental entities are trying to grasp how to use social media while simultaneously learning how to use it effectively as the technology is constantly changing. It makes for a daunting task for those interested in using social media to increase engagement.

The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC held a panel on June 28, 2011 to discuss the impact of social networks on the public’s interest and involvement in governance.

The panelists for “How Social Networking Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and Civic Participation” were Mindy Finn, Partner at the Engage, a firm that provides advice about online technology. She also directed Mitt Romney’s digital and online operations during his 2008 presidential campaign; Diana Owen, Social Professor of Political Science and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University; Macon Phillips, Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Director of Digital Strategy for the White House and Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which surveys the effect of technology on our socioeconomic lives.

Though the topic was social media and how it can increase civic engagement the panelists found themselves discussing how social media can be utilized and utilized better when it comes the public’s level of civic engagement.

Social Media Post-2008

Social networking has come quite a way in a relatively short period of time. Prior to 2008 older and newer social networking sites such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook were seen primarily as tools for the young in which they talked to their friends, shared music and posted photos.

Then social networking stepped into another realm with its use by the Obama campaign and the rise of Facebook. Obama’s campaign heavily used Twitter, Facebook and their website to keep voters abreast of their campaign stops, political stances and scheduled rallies.

Other presidential candidates such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Sen. John Edwards (D-SC) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same, but not with a similar level of effectiveness. Obama’s use of social media became the benchmark for how politicians could successfully connect with the public.

After the election, hundreds of local, state and Congressional politicians set-up a website, Facebook or Twitter account. Government agencies took steps to become a part of the social networking arena. The White House’s website became chockful of information about President Obama’s schedule and the Administration’s agenda, information that had been never readily available and with such detail. Earlier this week, the Obama Administration announced that President Obama would start tweeting via the White House’s official Twitter account.

However, does the fact that local, state and federal government have become social media users mean that they have connected successfully with the American public?

Politicians, the Public and Social Media

Macon Phillips stated that though the White House has primarily used its website to communicate with the public it wants to create a “more robust web program.”

Phillips said that the White House uses Twitter and Facebook, but that they have started to include LinkedIn as part of their social media work.

“We’ve done some real interesting work with [LinkedIn],” Phillips said, adding that “We try to look at all those communities where we actually wanted to find people where they were . . . their expertise in order to reach them more directly.” Phillips also stated that his office has also looked into Quora and other new sites, which seem “very compelling and full of experts.”

Mindy Finn saw social media as a way to get the public more civically involved at the grassroots level. Finn said that social media’ impact on politics has had a “revolutionary effect.” She cited the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as places where social media has played a major role in politics in those countries. Finn said that if campaigns can “do social media right it should be the central nervous system of the campaign.”

“Political campaigns are about people . . . it’s about connecting people and forming relationships with people, and that’s what social media is all about,” said Finn.

However, Finn said that politicians still campaign the old way in that they spend most of their time with those who can contribute the big money, “reserving the end of their campaign to try to meet some voters . . . person to person.”

Social Networking and Governance

Social media has also had an impact on the way the public receives their political news and participates in the political process. Finn stated that though social media has been beneficial there remains the perceived threat that “use of social media [is] a distraction” in that it “pulls people away from real friendships and their communities.” Lee Rainie said Pew’s report Social Networking and Our Lives shows that has not been the case.

“People particularly who use Facebook have more friends, more close friends, more likely to be involved in politics, more likely to be open to diverse points of views,’ said Rainie. He also said that usage of social media has continued to grow, as “twenty-two percent of internet users used social media in one way, shape or form in the 2010 election.”

Diana Owen said that there has been a correlation between social media usage and “election purposes.” In Georgetown University’ s Government in Politics in the Information Age, Owen said their report showed that “taking a civics course . . . greatly increases the probability that a person will use social media at least for election purposes.”

What Owen found interesting was that the incorporation of social media into civics education appeared to have an impact on civic engagement. Owens also said that sixty-seven percent of those whose civic courses integrated social media were “engaged in the 2008 campaign.”

Rainie agreed that civics education could add to a person’s comfortability level when using social media for their political activities. Raine said that the Pew study found that almost twenty-three percent of Americans “had tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate . . .  and that ten percent had attended a political rally.”

The panelists seemed to agree that the public’s use of social media to post their thoughts, ideas or news within their network or community can be an effective form of political activism.

Social Media and Reviving American Democracy

When asked what could social media do to improve participation in campaigns and “reinvigorate American Democracy,” the panelists mentioned how social media needed to be more a part of the political and news conversation.

Finn said that campaigns will need to accept that they must be “decentralized” in that the flow of information should come from the people and their social networks – not directly from the campaigns themselves.

Phillips has been fascinated by how social media content is currated – gathered and distributed. He said that “people are looking at stuff for alerts, they’re waiting for stuff to use to broadcast on their own vehicles.” Phillps also noted how American policy officials have conversed with large groups of people by way of Facebook chats.

Rainie noted that in the Pew Study twenty-two percent of Facebook users submit a comment on someone else’s post during a typical day; twenty percent comment on someone else’s photo and forty-four percent of social media users claim to update their status at least once a week.

Finn said that the use of social media combined with a very fast news cycle meant that politicians and the government must find new ways to provide information online for its constituents as quickly as possible.

Owen stated that in 2008 Facebook was the social media darling when it came to civic engagement; in 2010 it was Twitter. She said that because “we’re having a greater fragmentation of the platforms that people use for social media to access campaigns” that it is still  hard to predict what will be the next big thing to reinvigorate the public when it comes to their political interactions.

2012 Elections and Social Media

Phillips was hesitant to discuss his thoughts given his position and the fact that President Obama is running for re-election. However, he did mention that his office remains interested in making  more use of LinkedIn. He said that LinkedIn’s data “is very professionally-organized” and that it gets “looked over a lot.” He also said that Twitter will be used a lot more beyond tweeting White House announcements.

As evidenced by the fact that in the 2010 election over twenty-six percent of the American population have mobile phones is a sign that that mobile apps will play a bigger part in the upcoming presidential election said Rainie, he added that “All of the metrics of [how the public] uses social media are going up . . . the Internet is just going to become more and more important part of the campaign.”

Finn believed that new journalists with print and digital experience will play a significant part in the election cycle. She said that their ability to “determine good versus bad facts will be more important than ever,” especially since “having a good story is now less important than breaking news.”

Also, new journalists “must participate in social media” said Finn. They must think of different platforms to promote their story in the social media era. Finn said that new journalists must be “active social media participants” in that they make regular use of their Facebook and Twitter accounts not to only “post info but also engage with their followers, fans and those in their social network community.”

Owen said that in 2012 that those with the social media resources will continue to be the “social networking innovators” in that that they will have the most influence. Though you still hear about the digital divide being about race, Owen said that socioeconmic status mostly determines a person’s social network involvement. “Users of social media are not as diverse as we would like them to be,” said Owen. She also said that class and education status will play a role in the 2012 election and subsequent elections when it comes to social media.

Final Thoughts

Social media continues to play a significant part in the public’s political discussions and actions. Yet, does a tweet constitute civic engagement? Does becoming a fan of a politician’s page proves that a voter is paying attention to that politician’s activities?

The panelists seemed to believe that social  media can be used to reignite the public’s interest in campaigns, elections and civics education. However, their answers didn’t seem to go beyond what has already been addressed about how social media can empower its citizenry and what tools would best serve this purpose . Maybe this is because many of us are still learning how to use social media, let alone how to use it effectively in the political/governmental arena. Its ability to mobilize citizens to become full-fledged participants in the American democratic process has yet to be determined.

(For complete discussion, see How Social Networking Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and Civic Participation)

Hashtag Hesitation: How some at American University are wary, while others embrace social media in the classroom

College students attend lecture with their laptops (Photo/Tulane University)

Note: Article was originally posted April 2, 2011 on American University’s graduate news site,  AmericanObserver.net

American University is hosting a three-day Social Learning Summit this weekend to promote new media and its use in academic institutions.

The event aims to bring together students, educators, researchers and professionals to learn and exchange information on a “broad swath of topics at the intersection of social media, technology, and education,” according to the event website.

The use of social media by AU students may have increased rapidly in recent years, but its use in academic programs has been slower to develop, according to AU senior and SLS coordinator Alex Priest. This weekend’s gathering aims to change that.

Alex Priest, BSBA, AU 2011 is president of the American University Social Media Club (Photo/Jeff Watts, Social Media Club)

Perception

Facebook has taken over as the “social network of choice.” While other outlets such as Twitter have become popular as a social media and networking tool, Pew states that just 8 percent of online teens say they ever use the micro-blogging tool.

According to Priest,  the “advent of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other mobile apps” is as significant as previous technological milestones such as the “impact of email and the telephone.”   Despite this, he says, many on campus may be “less receptive” to social media in the classroom.

Priest said that the term “social media” is awkward and is sometimes misunderstood. “Any form of communication, any medium that allows for two-way communication… to allow you to interact with each other” is social media, he says. He believes that maybe if people looked at social media in terms of an “engagement” that it will help them to understand it better.

Professors and social media

AU Professor Scott Talan, another AUSMC faculty adviser, said that students “don’t know what they don’t know” about social media. Though younger users may have grown up using social media, such familiarity may not translate to fully exploiting its capabilities. While Facebook has become wildly popular, Talan said, if technology is not intuitive, people — even young people — won’t use it.

Scott Talan, Assistant Professor, School of Communication, American University (Photo/American University)

Talkin’ bout my generation

Talan said some professors still see social media as another way to fracture student’s attention spans. However, he does not see this as a valid argument against using social media in the classroom.

“Students are distracted by daydreaming. There will always be distractions,” he said. But, he also sees SLS as a “big opportunity for [professors] to learn and use social media” in order to understand it better.

Talan added that most staff on campus are “digital immigrants” in that they “haven’t grown up with this stuff.” He said that faculty are the “last generation” in that will be part “analog” and part “digital.”

“Different generations have a different comfort zone with technology,” said John Hussey,
He says some faculty are uncomfortable with social media because of the “barriers of technology” and the “stigma” that may be associated with it. He said that faculty still see Facebook as a place for “posting baby pictures” and Twitteras a tool for letting people know “what they had for lunch.”

John Hussey, Web Communications Manager, American University (Photo/American University)

There isn’t an official AU push for faculty to become more adept with social media tools, according to Hussey. However, he said that there are more that 70 AU offices on Twitter and approximately 40 professors have Twitter accounts.

Hussey said there is no need for a “PR campaign” in order to “pitch” professors on social media. “The adoption of social media has happened all over campus,” said Hussey. “The professors will have to get on board.”

To help ease faculty’s comfort with social media tools, Hussey’s office has held unofficial group meetings durign the past year to answer technology questions from professors and staff. He plans to officially schedule monthly meetings as a place to help faculty feel more at ease with using social media.

“They need to get past the technology to understand what it offers,” said Hussey.

Social media in the classroom

Though some students and faculty may not have fully embraced social media, a few AU professors have incorporated it into their classrooms.

During Fall 2009’s ‘snowpocalypse’ AU Professor Rhonda Zaharna used Facebook to hold class during a snowday when campus was closed. “It was the first time that I ever used Facebook that way,” she said.

Rhonda Zaharna, Assistant Professor, School of Communications, American University (Photo/American University)

Discussion questions were posted and answered via the social network during the scheduled classroom time. Since then Zaharna has used Facebook along with YouTube to “generate discussions” about assigned readings in her class.

Though Zaharna has been using Facebook she hasn’t discussed her usage of social media with other faculty members. “I’m still too new to it to be advising anyone” on how to use it in the classroom, she said.

Lauren Feldman, assistant professor in the School of Communications, said Facebook is easier to use as an interaction tool with students — such as to extend classroom discussions — because they are on it several times a day anyways.  “Getting students to use Blackboard . . .  was more of a challenge” because students didn’t use it consistently.

Feldman said that the fear some professors have that social media will take the place of actual teaching is due to the educators not “having quite figured out how [they] should embrace social media.”  However, she said that it’s important that faculty “understand that students’ approach to learning is diverse” and that they have to “go where the fish are” to get through to them.

Though Feldman has embraced social media, she said that it would not replace other forms of learning, but will merely be supplemental. “Tweets will not replace papers and blog posts are not going to replace reading,” she said.

Social media redefining the classroom

The social media landscape is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up or determine what will be the next big thing.

Social media beyond the Web will be the next big change, according to Talan. Faculty and students will eventually be using social media tools such as e-textbooks, iPads and smartphones in the classroom.

But real change depends on users adopting new technology. The “real challenge,” says Priest is getting people to have an “open mind.”