Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bigoted and offensive Missouri High School teacher

There’s nothing wrong with the fact Debra Blessman kept secret from her students the name of the film she would require them to watch and analyze during finals week at Francis Howell High School. Today, however, the teacher might be wishing she had not kept her superiors in the St. Charles, Mo., school district in the dark about her plans to base final exams on the Michael Moore film, “Sicko“, a trailer for which appears below.

Judging by the unedited plot summary below which Blessman distributed to students in her Senior Literature and Composition class, one might assume Blessman kept school district administrators in the dark about the controversial 2007 documentary on health care because she knew they might find the film objectionable:

In this documentary, the director/writer Michael Moore exposes the dysfunctional North American health care system, oriented to huge profits and not for their mission of saving lives. Further, he shows the corruption in the political system, with members of government and congress “bought” by the corporations and the situation of the average American citizens, including those that volunteered to work in the rescue mission of the September 11th. Then he travels to Canada, Great Britain and France to compare their systems showing their hospital, doctors, staffs and patients. Last but not least, he shows that the prisoners in Guantanamo have better medical treatment than the common people in USA, and he ends getting free treatment to the Americans that participate along the documentary in Cuba.

Apparently, however, Blessman did not expect any of her students to raise objections about the film. But one did.

On the morning of May 11, soon after learning about the film’s selection as the basis for the final exam in Blessman’s class, 18-year-old senior Celeste Finkenbine went straight to one of the school’s principals to raise her objections. Why? Because, based on her experiences with Blessman this semester and during a class three years earlier, Finkenbine didn’t think she would get very far pleading her case with the teacher she describes as a liberal. More on that later.

Unlike the vast majority of her classmates, Finkenbine is a politically-active conservative who spends many Saturday afternoons attending anti-socialism rallies at the intersection of Highways K and N in nearby O’Fallon, Mo. When she’s not in school or holding a sign on a street corner, you’re likely to find her working at a local nursing home in preparation for what she hopes will be a career as a geriatric physician.

Through a contact at the K and N Patriots, the group that holds the weekly rallies, I learned about Finkenbine’s objections to the film and, specifically, to being required to watch and analyze it as part of an assignment worth 50 percent of her total semester grade for the class. The video below is based on two recent interviews, one of which took place in the dining room of their St. Charles home, the other at a rally Saturday.

Finkenbine cited one primary reason behind her unwillingness to bring up points that back up Moore’s contentions. “My biggest issue with it is my principal said I can argue the conservative viewpoint, but that’s something that I have background with, that I’ve researched myself.

“Every other student in that class was only given the liberal viewpoint of it, and that’s exactly what teachers aren’t supposed to do, is lean toward one side or the other.”

When I contacted Dr. Renee Shuster, superintendent of the Francis Howell School District, she admitted the movie is not part of any district curriculum and that the teacher did not follow the process for having the film approved in advance. She also said that Finkenbine had been offered an alternative assignment that involves reading and analyzing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 7,000-word essay, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Does Finkenbine fear any repercussions for standing up for her conservative ideals?

“I’m hoping that, no matter what assignment I do, I can still get an ‘A’ on it. If I did feel like I was graded unfairly, it wouldn’t stop there.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Finkenbine’s alternative assignment relates to Dr. King, because it was during a recent class discussion that King’s name came up and, according to Finkenbine, her teacher laid her liberal cards out on the table.

Finkenbine said that, after she compared her participation in Tea Party rallies with the civil disobedience in which Dr. King participated, Blessman responded to her by saying, “Well, we all know you’re a ‘teabagger.’”

Afterward, Finkenbine recalled, the teacher started laughing and everyone in the class started laughing about Blessman’s use of the derogatory term, prompting the student to think, “Wow! Did she really just say that?”

Having heard this account of life in Blessman’s classroom, I contacted Dr. Shuster again.

In addition to wanting to find out how district officials would deal with the teacher for using a film that was not approved in advance, I wanted to know how they would address Finkenbine’s allegation that the teacher called her a “teabagger” in front of the class.

Schuster responded by e-mail, saying, “We would address this through the teacher evaluation process which hopefully leads to improvement but can lead to termination.”

Unfortunately, it appears all of the other students in Blessman’s class ended up having to watch and analyze”Sicko”.


Affirmative action plan for top British universities

Under the new government, the plan is likely to remain a recommendation only

Teenagers applying to top universities face school and family background checks in a new drive to break the middle-class dominance of higher education.

Admissions staff will be handed a 'basket' of details on each applicant to consider alongside exam results - including social class and education levels in their local neighbourhood.

Elite universities will be expected to consider giving students from working-class homes or 'low-performing' schools a head start in the admissions race of up to two grades at A-level.

Coveted colleges: Universities such as Oxford will be expected to give students from poorer backgrounds a head start in the application process

They also face being forced to set targets for increasing their intake of students from under-represented groups - and report progress publicly.

But the scheme, unveiled today, prompted warnings that bright pupils from good schools or middle-class homes could be 'penalised' for doing well and lose out on sought-after places.

Details emerged after an analysis showed how the social class gap at university has widened since the mid-1990s.

Students from the richest 20 per cent of families are seven times more likely to go to elite universities than the most disadvantaged 40 per cent.

Plans to give academically selective universities a range of 'contextual data' on each applicant emerged in a report by Sir Martin Harris, head of the Office for Fair Access watchdog, dubbed OfToff.

He revealed that the Russell Group of 20 elite universities has agreed a draft of a so-called 'basket' of 10 'contextual' statistics on each candidate.

Sir Martin was commissioned last year by then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson to draw up proposals for widening access to leading universities.

In his report today, Sir Martin said that improving students' attainment and aspirations from an early age was crucial to raising the number of working-class pupils studying at the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Durham.

He said bright students who are unlikely to go to university should be identified by the age of 14 and encouraged to go to summer schools and take part in activities that shake them from their 'social comfort zone'.

Sir Martin also called on universities to consider lowering entry requirements for candidates with less-than-stellar results who can demonstrate they have the 'potential' to succeed at university.

A study by Bristol University over three years concluded that students admitted on this basis would 'typically be as successful as their peers', said Sir Martin.

He also pointed the finger at league tables which encourage schools to play 'safe' by avoiding difficult subjects - which tend to be those sought after by universities.

Sir Martin denied the initiatives outlined in his report amounted to 'social engineering' or implied a dilution of academic standards.

But leading heads warned that universities were being forced to compensate for the failings of the education system.

Dr Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's School, London, said: 'It would be an extraordinary world where we penalise pupils for being too successful.'

He added: 'The crucial point is these schemes tackle the symptoms not the cause. They give schools carte blanche to go on under-achieving and lets them off the hook.'

Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, welcomed the 'very valuable' report.

'I look forward to discussing it in more detail with Sir Martin Harris. It provides a useful set of recommendations that I hope universities will consider carefully,' he said.


Entrepreneurship in education

The UK is getting a healthy dose of much-needed innovation as a number of schools take on lessons from the research of Professor Sugata Mitra. SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment) is a truly radical experiment that takes the pedagog out of pedagogy, relying instead upon children’s natural curiosity.

The hole-in the-wall experiments have been a phenomenon in India, across the developing world and now in Gateshead. It originates from when Professor Mitra decided to knock a hole in the wall of Delhi office, install a computer, hook it up to the internet and observe. As Professor Mitra explains, “Groups of Indian children were able to organise their own lessons using a single computer through unsupervised access to the world wide web.”

Now children living in some of the most deprived areas of the UK are benefiting: “When I tried a similar approach in Gateshead it worked even better, for the simple reason that English is their native language, so they don’t need to struggle to overcome that barrier before they can begin to learn from the web.” Mitra is a model entrepreneur. Before entering this exciting world where education and technology meet, he started the database publishing industry (particularly the Yellow Page industry) in India and Bangladesh. That he is also applying the skills to the UK, as Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, is to be celebrated.

Professor Mitra’s findings show how children socialising around technology can have impressive results. There exists an unhelpful disagreement between those that are wedded to the ideals of a liberal or progressive education. Instead, we should be focussed on what works. The entrepreneurs who are working towards the spread of this technology are heralding an exciting future, in which many of the poorest and most neglected have access to the same raw information as those of the most privileged. And instead of learning on by rote, children engage and teach each other as part of a community of learners. We need more innovation of this type.

Sadly though, such entrepreneurship is the exception, rather than the rule. This will be the case until state schools are unburdened of their stultifying regulation, re-oriented through the profit motive towards success and are bring greater competition to bear on public and private schools.


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