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Storming the CASTLE in the War on Christmas

CASTLE is stealing Christmas

‘Tis the season, folks. For family, friends and joy, some say.

Others seize the opportunity to hoist the banner of the Establishment Clause to persecute those who dare to recognize any bit of Christmas in public schools.

Over at Dangerously Irrelevant, Dr. Scott McLeod, Director of the Center of Advanced Study of Leadership in Education [CASTLE], announced a game called “Spot That Holiday Violation!” The contest, judged by McLeod, Jon Becker and Justin Bathon, is meant to highlight egregious violations of that delicate religion/public institution balance.

Here’s their pitch and explanation of the rules:

SPOT THAT HOLIDAY VIOLATION!

Here are the rules:

  1. Only American public schools are eligible. [sorry, international readers]
  2. Identify a possible violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution in your local school system. The Establishment Clause requires that schools not favor a) one religion (e.g., Christianity) over another religion, or b) religion over no religion. Government-sponsored religious displays or activities are pretty much always unconstitutional.
  3. Leave your description of the possible violation in the comments section of this post. If you’re not sure if it’s a violation or not, leave it anyway and we’ll chime in as needed. Possible violations may include teacher- or school-sponsored activities, displays, or other actions.
  4. The most egregious violation [as judged by myself, Justin Bathon (at CASTLE’s brother blog, EdJurist), and Jon Becker (of Educational Insanity)] wins a yet-to-be-determined prize!
  5. Deadline for entries is December 23, 2008.

Violations of the Establishment Clause are not to be taken lightly. We’ve got a unique setup here in the United States – though founded clearly on Judeo-Christian/Western principles, we aren’t a thuggish, iron-fisted theocracy that forces the minority to join the mission of the majority.

Some, however – and this includes the CASTLErs with this initiative – interpret the Establishment Clause as it relates to public schools to mean that the ‘freedom from’ is near absolute.

I described this particular contest as “glib, ideologically-driven tripe” – and at least one good soul in the blogosphere appreciated that. If you read the comments, you’ll see why the “Spot That Holiday Violation!” contest exhibits twice the zealotry they’re working so hard to point out.

And, to co-opt a fashionable education term, this contest facilitates that anti-Christmas zealotry.

One of the first gripes details public school religion horrors that include Christmas trees, reindeer on the walls [that "suggests that one religion's folklore is more accepted than any other"] and – brace yourselves, folks, this is the worst:

We even have a Christmas tree in our commons area with Christmas wishes for needy families written on angels that hang on the tree for people to take and grant (Nothing for our needy families that don’t celebrate Christmas).”

It’s sad that one approaches the world in this way – that the holiday season is such an offensive encroachment on liberty as to become mean-spirited and exclusionary. I replied:

Well done spotting the subtle suggestion that these Christian zealots want to spend December 25th beating needy pagans into a bloody pulp with their well-thumped Bibles – while passing on good tidings only to fellow believers, that is.”

That well-wishing for the needy was directed only to the Christian needy is about as plausible as “don we now our gay apparel” actually referring to a costume appropriate for the Folsom Street Fair. But this is the reality of how progressive educators and their torch-bearers view the intersection of religion, Western culture and our schools.

Not a terribly constructive tone, I’ll admit, but at the time I posted that comment, I didn’t think anyone would take the initiative seriously.

Here’s another protest from a teacher forced to endure a faculty talent show at which performers sang some Christmas-themed songs:

“Yesterday, our faculty was forced to sit through a 2-hour luncheon, during which our administration hosted an open-mic talent session. 7 different faculty members sang religious Christmas songs (and not all of them very well.) During the singing, the cafeteria frequently broke out with “Amens” and “Tell it brother/sister.” It was really painful;; I felt like I was at church. My snarky colleagues and I joked about volunteering to sing the Dradle song.”

How she managed to survive is beyond me. I replied to “ms”:

“The setting she describes is an open event – presumably any show of ‘talent’ would have been acceptable. The free responses were not coerced and were of the audience’s own volition.

ms jokes that she could have given a rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel” – a song which I learned as a child in my rural, public school, and a song which I otherwise would not have encountered. She could have performed it but she chose not to. Instead, she joked with colleagues and then, as we can see above, posted about it on the CASTLE blog. That she was held against her will without any chance to opt out could have been challenged – and likely upheld.

There are egregious examples of political and religious coercion that exist in public schools. We’ve got urban legends, trusted testimonials and, in some cases, video evidence. No one denies that.

But the examples cited above – including CASTLE’s bizarre, intellectually/socially misguided mission here – fail to recognize the difference between the indoctrination of values and common cultural literacy.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that spending time on songs of the American Civil Rights movement and its social protest is a violation of the Establishment Clause even when those songs are heavily religious [and Christian, no less!]. Take, for example, “We Shall Overcome,” a staple of that era. Our jurists here fail to protest that such demonstrations of our culture are really religious evangelism. In that example they recognize a difference between culture and indoctrination – and they’ve reached the proper conclusion. Even so, there’s no reason to pretend that their selective discrimination is not based on their political and social preferences.

They are, in a phrase, intellectually dishonest. If they were truly committed to tying these commonplace celebrations of Christmas to that list of Establishment Clause violations, they’d plop Joel Osteen and Rosa Parks in the same category.

Mr. Anderson and the CASTLErs – as well as future commenters, surely – seem to suggest that celebrating, or even recognizing, these cultural elements constitutes a rejection of all others. This simply isn’t true. That suggestion isn’t any more valid than if one attempted to make the case that our celebration of American Independence Day every July 4th carried with it a contemptuous attitude toward countries with different histories or forms of government.

There’s a reason that most calendars include the Commonwealth countries’ Boxing Day, and it isn’t because we’re filled with hate toward celebrations that aren’t our own.”

That’s the beauty of holiday celebrations – and all celebrations, really. Talk show host and religious scholar Dennis Prager likens it to a goodwill celebration of another’s birthday. It isn’t our own day, we really have no stake in it. We celebrate with him, nonetheless, because we share that joy. It’s common decency, it’s common culture. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in another country [or even in a different part of the United States] has likely had great fun – and increased their appreciation of that culture – by sharing in celebrations that weren’t their own.

One issue was troubling to a CASTLE judge – “messiah” being the ‘word of the day’ in a school district:

“A public school here has a word of the day, which is a definition of a particular, pre-chosen word. Well, a couple weeks ago the word was “Messiah.” The definition for Messiah was something to the effect of “in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, who is their savior and redeemer. Who came to Earth and was born in a manger and Christmas, and died to save the world’s sins.” No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions. It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day. My question was, Messiah is fine with me to define, but why not just use an actual dictionary definition instead of making one up that turned into a definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ? Anyway, I know that is not going to qualify as the “most egregious,” but nevertheless I thought it was a cute violation.”

On Twitter and other media, I’ve been candid about the CASTLE attitude toward Establishment Clause violations screaming of ignorance. I said, in a tongue-in-cheek Tweet, that “3 JDs < 1 BA” with an implied reference to our three judges. Here was my response to Mr. Bathon regarding “messiah”:

“Justin,

I’m going to parse your comment to make it a little easier.

“The definition for Messiah was something to the effect of “in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, who is their savior and redeemer. Who came to Earth and was born in a manger and Christmas, and died to save the world’s sins.”

The Messiah is primarily a Christian/Hebrew concept as the term originates in the Old Testament. What was given was a very specific definition – if you want to take issue with that, go ahead. My guess is that it was presented this way because of time/medium constraints. How would you define “Messiah” in a 140 character tweet?

“No mention of other messiahs, no mention of other religions”

Perhaps that’s because there aren’t as many as you might think. The Jews have yet to get theirs. The Christians recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It would have been valuable – and an inch closer to that special goal of all-things-diversity, yes? – to mention that the Koran/Islam recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, too.

Put simply, going on about the Rastafari Messiah et al. would have covered all the bases – at the expense of time and practical concerns.

“It was a pretty clear intentional crossing of the line in this otherwise innocuous word of the day”

You have failed to make a case that there was an “intentional crossing of the line” in this example. I’ve just shown you why your argument is folly.

“Messiah is fine with me to define, but why not just use an actual dictionary definition instead of making one up that turned into a definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ?”

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/messiah

First, peep that definition. You’ll find that what you heard – and complained about here – isn’t different than what’s found in a dictionary.

Second, that you saw it as a “definition of why you should worship Jesus Christ” is a deliberate misinterpretation. This time it’s a mix of dishonesty and abysmal comprehension. Unless there’s more to the situation than what you described, no sensible person would hear that and think it was evangelism. Highly-specific description that fails to take into account other relevant facets of the definition, such as the Jews waiting on their Messiah? Yes. Christian evalngelism? No.

You folks should have spent less time in inadequate Constitutional Law courses and more time in core Western Civilization classes. It would’ve saved all of us a lot of time.”

I didn’t touch on his use of messiah vs. Messiah, but I should have.

These, folks, are the education leaders’n'lawyers who are determining what you can and can’t do in public schools. Unfortunately, they know precious little about religion, Western culture and tradition. In a response to my comment, Mr. Bathon continues:

Let’s get some more … this is fun (and educational for me too).”

It isn’t fun for me.

It’s depressing to see such deliberate misinterpretation and misapplication of Constitutional principles with regard to public schools. It’s even worse to see it injected into one of the happier times of the year – especially for kids. It’s zealotry mixed with fearmongering, and at the foundation is a profound ignorance of Western culture.

A commenter suggested in a not-so-subtle way that this was a personal issue for me. It isn’t. One of the few things my local school does right, assuming it hasn’t changed much, is the holidays – that’s why I’ve got a neat dreidel story.

I’d like every kid to share in the joy of the holiday season even if the celebrations aren’t his own. It’s far healthier than a deranged protest that one be entitled to a freedom from all things that aren’t dear to him.

One approach is selfish, arrogant, and narcissistic. The other rests on tolerance, shared joy, diversity and community. You decide which is better.

So, in that way, I suppose it is a personal issue for me. Healthy kids and healthy, diverse communities that recognize and share one another’s traditions are the communities we need.

And though I consider threats to that climate largely irrelevant, I do consider them dangerous.

UPDATE at 3.26pm, 12.22.08:

An astute commenter suggested privately that the CASTLErs heed Matthew 7:3:

“”Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”

A good, applicable question.

UPDATE at 4.17pm, 12.22.08:

Dr. Becker has given me some heat on Twitter because of my following tweet:

@[name removed] also, i’ll be damned if i’m going to let some dolt who has to look up the word “messiah” profess to me on “ceremonial deism”

Yes, Dr. Bathon, I called you a dolt because you had the gall to dictate what does and does not pass for overt religious displays when you showed ignorance of Christianity and Western tradition – and then giggled like a schoolboy at the fun of the debate.

Here’s the rest of the exchange:

jonbecker @matthewktabor Sir, I wll NOT stand for you referring to my friends/colleagues as “dolts.” That’s absolutely offensive and wrong!!!
matthewktabor @jonbecker jeering those who celebrate Christmas in schools is fine, calling someone a dolt is horriffic? i guess i see it differently
jonbecker @matthewktabor YES, calling someone a “dolt”, especially in a space where they can’t reply, is horrific.
@jonbecker you’re welcome to forward the message to him – actually, hold, i’ll update my blog, he can respond there
… and here we are, folks.

Hillsborough County Public Schools and the Blogging Problem

hillsborough county, florida - education blogging capital of the world!

“We must have hit a nerve,” sayeth one of those Tampa-area bloggers. I believe that blogger is right.

I also believe that it won’t be long before Ms. Faliero et al. try to silence Tampa education bloggers officially, or at least try to intimidate them into submission.

I might be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

I wrote a lengthy guest piece for the UMiami Education Students blog about Hillsborough County Schools and blogging. You can read about Jennifer Faliero foaming at the mouth about misinformation and lies on blogs – and read her call for the St. Pete Times to literally employ someone to monitor blog comments “round-the-clock.”

Oh, and she wants to “force” commenters to register in a verifiable way – and one has to assume Faliero would want that information accessible to HCPS. Good Lord, it’s almost as if she’s a union boss.

Faliero puts a panicked, high-pitched, uptalk “eeee!” in the phrase “Free press.”

Here’s are a few lines from my piece titled “Hillsborough County Schools’ Blog Problem is About Communication“:

“A [growing] segment of the Hillsborough public doesn’t trust the district. That takes time to erase. But in the meantime, trust can be built by using these channels of communication rather than complaining about them.”

It’s probably true of your district, too. I suggest you read the whole thing.

EdTechTalk Conversations: Digital Footprints, Personal Responsibility – and MKT

I was pleased to join hosts Lisa Parisi and Maria Knee on Episode 19 of EdTechTalk Conversations this Sunday. We spent an hour discussing digital footprints/online image of teachers – and whether they have a special responsibility to tailor that image to the profession’s standing – when private actions bleed into the public sphere, and a ton of offshoot issues that ranged from political to lighthearted.

I had a great time talking with them both and interacting with the live listeners in the chat room. If you haven’t heard ETT Conversations before, I recommend subscribing…

… when you pop over to listen to Episode 19, of course.

Great Links Curriculum for Tuesday, November 18

If you aren’t already following me on Twitter, you ought to start. I link to and comment on education stories ’round the clock.

And if you’re new to Twitter or aren’t sure how to get started, check out TwiTip’s 10 Easy Steps for Twitter Beginners. Give it a whirl!

Now for the Great Links… and some real stinkers that also deserve attention.

Via EIA, Andrew Sullivan and Michelle Rheetwo peas in a pod? Believe it or not, yes. I suppose even Sullivan gets to be sensible every once in a while. Blind squirrel, broken clock, etc. etc.

There aren’t too many men teaching K-12, reports Eduflack. In MA, fewer than 25% of K-12 teachers are men. And it’s everywhere, too – in April 2007 I wrote a post about male elementary teachers in NY dropping to 9%, a 40-year low. Some folks like MenTeach have been trying to raise awareness for a while now. Check them out and subscribe.

Ted Tedesco of Woodbury, Vermont is a hero. He’s worked to restore the Pledge of Allegiance in that small school district. The admins’ solution to his request is ridiculous, but at least everyone sees it. That, and a generation of kids in Woodbury knows how important it is to defend their country and their culture. As I wrote in the comments of the Core Knowledge post:

“A few months ago I attended a reunion banquet for a tiny, rural high school that closed shop during the consolidation efforts of the 1950s. Their meeting included the Pledge of Allegiance. When the Pledge came up in the agenda, all of the ~100 in attendance rose – and some with great difficulty, as they were in their 80s and 90s – to recite it.”

You know where I stand on this issue, and there’s a reason why I call the Green Mountain State “The People’s Republic of Vermont.” [Sorry, Jessie.]

Across the pond, here’s why I like the Tories. They’ve got a plan to re-introduce a bit of rigor to GCSEs and A-levels. The GCSEs in particular have been gutted – remember this physics teacher begging the government via petition to return mathematical rigor to secondary physics?

“Hot Boys”? I’d prefer that EdSector’s Quick and the Ed bloggers had a bit more self-respect. I already have trouble taking them seriously – these post titles don’t help.

Schools suing bloggers? You betcha. PRO on HCPS links to a libel case against an unhappy parent. Well, if “libel” means “a school district seething when held accountable by the public.” Guess who won? [UPDATE: PRO on HCPS gives us a better link for schools suing bloggers.]

Litigation is expensive when you’re trying to fire a teacher, administrator or school employee. In nearby Utica, NY, Craig Fehlhaber’s hearings have cost the Utica City Schools $250,000 – and counting. If Fehlhaber wins, the district will likely have to reimburse his attorney’s fees as well. We went through the same process in Cooperstown several years ago. If you ever wondered why schools tend not to dismiss bad employees, now you’ve got one reason.

Dave at ‘Friends of Dave’ – a very sharp blog, subscribe with all deliberate speed – highlights some recent irony in California. The California Association of School Business Officers have a conference at which they’ll discuss our tough economic times and how their districts can cope. And that conference is at a hotel/spa/golf course in Newport Beach. Dave has a sensible take on it all, but c’mon, CASBO. He says, “It is a bit ironic that the people who are typically the ones telling their co-workers that they can’t have an extra ream of paper are the ones having a really nice time at a Hotel and Spa on the beach.” Agreed.

Victory in Iraq Day – November 22, 2008. ZombieTime has declared 11/22/08 VI Day and I’m with him 100%. Read his post to see why it’s appropriate to declare VI Day and you’ll see why I support it, too.

“Building a GREAT teaching workforce,” described by American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence’s Dave Saba. Saba/ABCTE sing the praises – rightly – of a new report on the effectiveness of alternative certification programs.

Education Reporting, Proposition 8 and Bay Area News Group’s Erotic Family Values

For those of you who don’t live in California or have been under a rock for the last 6 months, Proposition 8 is a proposal to amend the California Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and recognize only marriages between one man and one woman. Voting ‘Yes’ on Proposition 8 would effectively ban gay marriage; a “No” vote would allow it.

Again, this is an education site – the issue here isn’t for or against Prop 8. The issue is a cup of education reporting, a dollop of honesty and a sprinkle of irony. Stay with me here, you lewd and lascivious types. It gets saucy at the end. [Note: "NSFW" = a link is "not safe for work."]

In “If Gay Marriage is Allowed, Will Schools Promote It?” NPR looked at the ad campaigns on both sides. In one popular television spot [YouTube link] features:

“…a young girl who brings home a book called King & King.

“Mom, guess what I learned in school today,” she says in the ad. “I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!”

The ad was based on the real-life story of Robin and Robb Wirthlin, a Mormon couple living in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal. Two years ago, their son’s second-grade teacher read King & King to the class.”

Some say the ad is baseless fearmongering; others say it reflects the everyday reality of a legal redefinition of a societal norm.

In “Schools dragged into marriage debate,” Katy Murphy of The Education Report, a blog about Oakland’s schools, wrote:

“Whether you’re a campaign hack or just selling a home alarm system (or tires, or antidepressants, or disinfectant), scare tactics can really come in handy. And there’s probably no easier way to freak people out than to make them think their kids will be in harm’s way if they don’t vote a certain way or buy a certain product.”

One need not commit one’s life to textual exegesis to understand Murphy’s implication: supporters of Prop 8 are dishonest fearmongers [as are tire salesmen and those profit-hungry doctors, too?]. There are certainly over-the-top campaigners on Prop 8; Murphy, however, neglects to point out that those types are on both sides. Murphy cites the NPR article:

“National Public Radio did a story yesterday about how education has become swept up in the California campaign for Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban.”

Murphy is disingenuous once more. Education hasn’t “become swept up” in the Prop 8 debate; education is helping to push the broom – to the tune of $1.25 million from the California Teachers Association.

… and that was it. No mention of the Wirthlins’ MA case – despite it being explained clearly in the NPR piece to which she links – or any of a number of uncomfortable challenges that have either popped up already or surely will in the future. Murphy would like you to believe that the ad is a scare tactic based on irrational, hateful fundamentalism. She links to the YouTube response:

“Here’s the TV ad that prompted the story, followed by a response from State Superintendent Jack O’Connell.”

The ad is more than just a “response from State Superintendent Jack O’Connell.” It’s not a public service announcement by a state official; it’s a paid political advertisement produced and purchased by No On 8, Equality for All.

They write about the ‘scare tactics’ on their sister sites, too.

But what of O’Connell’s claims? Back to the NPR article:

“O’Connell says if Proposition 8 is defeated, that will have no bearing on the state’s education code. “There is no requirement, no mandate for any school in the state of California to have this [gay marriage] required as a course.”"

Very true, Superintendent O’Connell – though no one mentioned your straw man of “a course” being taught about gay marriage. One can assume safely that legislative decisions about society make their way into most classrooms implicitly or out of necessity. Consider that schools don’t have “a course” explaining how stealing private property is illegal, but it’s a lesson of our society, supported by law, that frequently pops up in schools. It will be no different [nor should it be, if Prop 8 is defeated] with a state’s legal ruling on marriage.

Murphy, seemingly horrified at any assertion for Prop 8, concludes:

“Do you think Prop. 8’s defeat — or passage — would have any real impact on education in California?”

Murphy could have peeped at her own website if she wanted to understand the concern some have when education and family values collide. When I accessed Murphy’s article, the right sidebar advertisement – just below that shiny, traditional apple-on-the-desk – was for Perry Mann’s 29th Annual Exotic Erotic Ball. Here’s a screenshot [click here for full-sized version]:

In case you haven’t attended, the Exotic Erotic Ball is “A Celebration of Flesh, Fetish and Fantasy,” and billed as “The World’s #1 Wildest, Sexiest Party.” You can view a generously tame [but still NSFW] photo gallery of the 2007 event here. OvaHere.com has a less-artistic, more realistic dump of [NSFW, either] photos from 2006′s Ball.

But this isn’t about Exotic Erotic Balls-past, it’s about what you get when you click an ad on The Education Report – for example, an ad on a disingenuous post about schools and values:

  • Pricasso, the Penis Painter
  • A dog with a sex toy in its mouth
  • Dozens of barely-censored photos

Click the link and add to the list yourself.

Reading about public education on a news site [Bay Area News Group] and one click later you’re staring at a dog chewing on a dildo.

Ms. Murphy, you let me know if you  or anyone at the Bay Area News Group  would like to have a conversation about why some parents are worried about what their children encounter in even the most benign arenas.

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